Odious Rumours: Arachnid-Enhanced Bubble Yum

« A kid one time fell asleep chewing Bubble Yum, and he woke up with his mouth full of spider eggs. » — Some nameless rumour-monger

The other day, a neighbour was asking me whether it was a safe for his Golden Retriever puppy to eat the worms it was digging up (I was impressed), the guy presuming that said worms were quite filthy and rife with germs. I replied that no, it’s probably all the rooting through the trash and gobbling up whatever it finds that’s giving the pup gastric distress. Worms, in fact, are considered a delicacy in many a culture, including some European ones. Not that I’ve indulged: just like The Kinks’ Apeman, I’m a strict vegetarian.

This brought to mind those 1970s rumours of earthworms serving as filler in McDonald’s burgers (never mind that worms are a far costlier ingredient than is beef). Which led in turn to the equally-outlandish notion that the secret of Bubble Yum’s softness (introduced in 1975 by Life Savers, it was the first soft bubble gum ever concocted) lay in its containing spider eggs. Again, steady procurement would have proved quite a daunting challenge.

Art by Tomm Coker, from The Big Book of Urban Legends (1994, Paradox Press/DC); edited by Bronwyn Carlton Taggart and featuring the most inconstant levels of skill and talent you’re ever likely to encounter in a professional comics publication: a couple dozen or so versatile cartoonists, and over a hundred superhero hacks and/or photo tracers utterly out of their depth, a reminder of just how shallow the talent pool is. This isn’t one of the good pieces, but it’s nowhere near the bottom.
A trade ad from 1977, the year of Bubble Yum’s national (and international, as this Canadian can attest) rollout.

But the bubble was about to burst (or at least deflate somewhat), as reported by The New York Times (March 29, 1977):

The Great Spider Egg Mystery remains unsolved but it may yet have several happy endings. The mystery concerns Bubble Yum, a popular new bubble gum that has, in a year, overtaken such symbols of earlier childhoods as Dubble Bubble and Bazooka. A few weeks ago came toil and trouble: the unexplained spread of lurid rumors among children in the New York area that, gasp!, Bubble Yum contained spider eggs (or, according to haughtier youthful accounts, caused cancer). Stores which had up to then been unable to stock enough to meet demand suddenly saw sales plummet. Last week, the manufacturer, Life Savers, Inc., took out full‐page ads in 30 area newspapers to combat the rumors.

This is not the first time the bubble gum business has been beset by evil rumor. When Jimmy Carter was a boy, youngsters in Sumter County, Georgia, were scared off by reports that bubble gum was made with snake oil —until they were reassured by an ad in the Americus Times‐Recorder. Nor is bubble gum normally regarded as the stuff of moral lessons. Its history, since it was invented by Walter Diemer in 1928, is marked by such milestones as packaging it with baseball cards (1933) or making it squeakless (1953).

But there is something more significant, and appealing, in the open way in which Life Savers has chosen to deal with its problem. We hope the spider egg rumors are expunged as successfully now as the snake oil rumors were then. And there will be a happier ending still if the subject is properly understood to be not bubble gum but canard. No consumer is too young to learn the malign effects of rumor or to understand that there will always be someone, not always in youthful innocence, eager to raise the cry—whether about Communists in government, environment, energy or bubble gum—of “spider eggs.”

From Morris County, NJ’s Daily Record, March 27, 1977 edition.

Susan M. Smith wrote, in her 1989 thesis, Consumer Rumors and
Corporate Communications
:

Whether the rumor is isolated or widespread, the company must select media that reach the rumor’s community of interest, and particularly, its influential leaders. The importance of this is shown by what happened after a rumor episode in New York City for the Life Saver’s Company. The company conducted an all-out attack to combat a rumor in 1977 that the company’s innovative, new soft chewing gum. Bubble Yum, contained spider eggs. It sought publicity, inserted full-page newspaper ads, and sent letters with a copy of the ad to the city’s PTA groups, school principals, and retail outlets.

The campaign successfully stopped the rumor, but Bubble Yum’s New York sales did not recover for many years. It turns out that even though the company had blanketed the city with its rumor denial, it never spoke directly to product users, the school-age children, to bolster confidence in the product. The selection of inappropriate media makes the refutation message miss the rumour’s public allowing the rumor to continue to spread or delaying recovery from the rumor.

Speaking of advertising: Marvel’s knockoff of Scholastic’s Dynamite, Pizzazz (1977-79), which included lots of ads, featured this piece in its 6th issue (March 1978, Marvel). This gives you a sense of Bubble Yum’s success, as the product was, in its field, what’s termed a disruptive innovation. Chewing gum no longer had to be hard.
Inevitably, the imitators came! Smooooth N’ Juicy, Hubba Bubba, Bubblicious, the oddball Freshen Up, and so on. Marvel switched its advertising allegiance to Topps. This is from Pizzazz no. 11 (Aug. 1978, Marvel). The art looks to me to be the work of Mad magazine veteran Jack Rickard (1922-1983).
A few issues later, (Pizzazz no. 14, Nov. 1978, Marvel), in a brazen display of corrupt insincerity, came this so-called Consumer Guide (note that only Topps products are pictured). Really, is Bubble Yum “the hardest, toughest gum our testers had to chew“? Surely anyone who’s ever tried to chew something from the Bazooka family knows better. My jaw aches just from the memory.
The company continued efforts to restore its reputation in the New York market, where the rumours had caused the most harm. A piece from The New York Times‘ Tuesday, July 22, 1980 edition.
This ad ran in Adventure Comics no. 487 (Nov. 1981, DC) and several other titles in the following months.
Now that’s better: in 1982, they turned to the incomparable Jack Davis to illustrate one of their print ads. Given his prodigious speed, he couldn’t have spent more than an hour on this specific piece, but it works far better than its predecessors. Incidentally, the ‘Super Yum’ thing (replacing Soft ‘n Juicy) appears to have been a move to block a competitor from using the appellation.

But I suppose all this controversy merely seems quaint now, what with all today’s heavy weaponizing of misinformation. Besides, the bubblegum market has been rather moribund in the past few decades, since apparently Nobody Likes to Chew Gum Anymore.

For a bit of sugar high nostalgia, I’ll leave you with a pair of vintage Bubble Yum ads: 1976’s brand introduction, featuring The Flavor Fiend;

And 1988’s spot co-starring a young Leonardo DeCaprio, which shows us he was clearly born with that insufferable smugness, or at least had honed it to perfection by his teens.

-RG