Alright, let’s, for a minute, remove the “jugular candy” portion of this tale (I know, buzzkill) and focus on the bigger story–the marketing genius behind the world’s lamest candy product.
PEZ was originally invented in Austria in 1927 by a gentleman playing around with compressing the fancy baking powders that his family sold (if you were thinking, “gross” I second that thought). The mint flavored bits were idealized as a smoking deterrent, so the packaging evolved over time from an Altoids-like tin to a more “hygienic” device that, oddly, looked just like a cigarette lighter (I say “oddly,” but I mean “freaking brilliantly”). The marketing mastery at work with the original “suck ’em if you’ve got em” device (called a “regular”) created the PEZ as you know it today–artificially flavored powder compressed into small rectangular bursts of tongue tie dying mediocrity, double wrapped for freshness in rolls of twelve candies each–exactly the number of candies that a dispenser holds.
In a 1945 post war slump, the company decided to expand to the American market. Since big tobacco was still ruling the roost stateside (and, why not–the Marlboro Man was tasty) and Americans were looking for ways to suck MORE cigarettes into their day, not less, the company decided to market the product to the one market in America with less financial restraint and more pocketbook control than the chain smoking breadwinners–the sweet toothed sticky handed sugar munchkins (children). In an effort to make the (certainly not as delicious as, well, almost any other candy) powdery capsules sufficiently frenzy inducing enough to justify the exportation costs, a head was attached to the top of the dispenser–first an astronaut, then Santa Claus and shortly Mickey Mouse. Eureka was born and by eureka, I mean, holy crap. PEZ has NEVER advertised their product, yet Americans consume more than a billion PEZ each year. The market here is so strong that, in 1973, PEZ candy manufacturing came to Connecticut. Which is how I arrive at the raison d’être of today’s little rant.
Yesterday, I spent the afternoon in the PEZ Visitors Center in Orange, Connecticut. While PEZ is not my first candy choice, I have been known to occasionally indulge for a couple of very mature reasons. First and foremost, they have a very diverse selection of both Star Wars and Batman dispensers. I have secondary reasons, but I think that I could stop right there. Alright, you beat it out of me. . . I think it is super funny to eat candy bricks out of someone’s neck hole. There. I said it. Laryngectomy patients can rest easy, though, I can safely say that my neck chasm sweet sucking obsession is purely inanimate.
The PEZ Visitor Center is located in an industrial area not too far from city center. Parking was free and plentiful. As soon as I exited the car, I was enveloped by a puff of warm, sweet, cherry scented air. We trekked through the sludgy remnants of a New England winter and opened the double glass doors to PEZ Valhalla. Let me clarify something – the PEZ Visitor Center is a PEZ glorifying gift shop with historical information about PEZ on display with windows to a factory floor where beard net wearing dudes supervise conveyor belts full of PEZ. And they charge admission. And it’s worth every penny of five dollars (with a two dollar store merchandise credit, of course). Upon paying the entrance fee, you are given a PEZ lanyard with a PEZ shaped visitor pass attached to it, you are shuffled past the custom PEZ American Chopper in the lobby right smack into the base of the World’s Largest PEZ (an exclusive design, versions of which can ONLY be purchased here at the PEZ Center, of course).
Inside, You are offered a free sample of PEZ candy, and given the opportunity to play a scavenger hunt for an opportunity to “spin the wheel of PEZ” and earn a free dispenser. I opted for “Yes, to all of the above.” I delved into the interactive wall of PEZ history to learn all that I could about the product, I examined the dispenser innovations and historical changes. I swam in a vat of PEZ until my fingers were pruny and pink – oh, wait, that last one was just a dream that I had later that night. The scavenger hunt was challenging and guaranteed that I saw every display intended to delight, educate and sell me on PEZ. Check, check and double check. Despite their claim to have never advertised PEZ in the U.S., there was a fantastic collection of near pornographic PEZ posters. The evolution of PEZ characters through the years is a cool chronicle that speaks of pop culture trends and manufacturing advances, and tracing the transition from adult anti-smoking aid to child friendly candy/toy to geeky adult cult phenomenon kept me entertained for well over an hour.
Upon exiting, I found that I had accidentally spent $100 on PEZ themed crap that I would never have purchased if left to my own devices and budgetary proclivities–a hilarious t-shirt for each of my children that has a dispenser body on the front ending at the neck and, in a cool 50’s style font, “You’re not famous until they put your head on a PEZ,” a “regular” dispenser for each of them since they are not old enough to have outgrown eating PEZ, but they pretend to be too cool to choose a character they feel comfortable necking with, and an educational array of PEZ flavors that I had never seen or heard of for their sampling pleasure.
I give the whole experience 4 stars on a traditional sight seeker’s scale–fun, interesting, great service, friendly staff, good prices, easy to find, easy to park, loses half of a star for charging admission for what is, essentially a gift shop and another half star for not having more access to the factory floor.
On the Patented Pam Eikleberry Giggling Happy Spin Scale, though, the place gets 4.5 spins – the staff was a hoot and they were down with all of my ridiculousness–from inappropriate questions about the staff, the products and the factory to taking hilarious rude photos of me whenever I asked without ever rolling an eye. They laughed at my hilarious PEZ themed jokes and made sure that I had a great time, losing 1/2 of a star for not allowing me to fool around on the factory floor reenacting the opening credits of Laverne and Shirley but with rainbow colored candy tidbits. Do I know that this is not justified? Yes. But it’s my scale so shut it. P.S. I may have also been stingy with my spins because none of the staff on the floor realized how funny the collection of PEZ pictured below is.