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bubble-tape.jpgIt’s only a small pink container of gum, nothing more, and nothing less. It’s got none of the snarky comics or hidden fortunes associated with other seasoned brands. Yet for a brief period in time, Bubble Tape held sway over millions of teens and pre-teens.

Case in point: William Lutz. Though he’s a grown man with a wife and kids, as a young teen during the early 90s the Pennsylvania resident became fascinated with the Bubble Tape commercials that were airing at the time. The ads, which featured campy caricatures of stuffy principals, dour gym teachers and overzealous parents, stuck him as being light-hearted and innovative, a far cry from the edgy fare being offered to his cohorts.

“They were humorous,” he said in an email interview. “I enjoyed them very much.”

Intrigued by the commercials, with their enjoinder of “It’s for you, not for them,” Lutz bought a container and tasted it himself. He liked it so much, he spread the word around to his friends, and their friends told their friends, and soon everybody was trying it.

But Lutz and friends had an ulterior motive for their gum chewing habits, one that had as much to do with machismo as status.

“We played little league, and at the time we idolized the big leaguers. Since the container was small and round, it looked like the tobacco cans that the ballplayers used. We used to fill them up with Big League Chew to emulate the big leaguers.”

This comes as no surprise to Caitlin Kendall. As a staff writer for CandyAddict.com, she is a virtual fountain of information on all things gum, and according to her, the success of Bubble Tape had less to do with the gum itself- which by all accounts was par for the course as far as gum is concerned– and more to do with the packaging it came in.

“Easily identifiable branding is critical when it comes to kids. Without it, kids will pick out whatever popped out at them on the shelves first.”

But what makes Lutz’s story unique from all the other testimonials about Bubble Tape isn’t his rapturous love of the commercials or his friend’s awe over the package. It is his age.

“The primary demographic for Bubble Tape was in their pre-teens and early teens” Kendall said. “That is who the commercials were aimed for.”

As an incoming high school student, Lutz did not fit the profile of a typical Bubble Tape customer. Moreover, there was one more thing which set him out from the herd: he was male.

According to Leslie Savan in her book The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture, although teen males were known to consume Bubble Tape, the vast majority of customers were tween girls. This notion was hinted at in her book by the then-VP of marketing for Wrigley, who confirmed that the vast majority of customers who made up the focus groups were girls 14 and under.

The fact that females account for a lion’s share of the market for bubble gum has long been an open secret for advertisers. A 2007 report commissioned by NPD and the marketing organization Global Insights found that while the overall market for bubble gum is declining- thanks in part to the declining birth rate and an aging population- only 0.3 percent of the bubble gum purchasers are male.

Yet the main thing Lutz and his female cohorts had in common happened to be an attraction to the slick advertising. The early 90s was a time of cynicism and distrust of authority. Grunge was in, and across the country, college students and high-schoolers were dyeing their hair and sporting tattoos in honor of rock star icons such as Kurt Cobain and Chris Cornell.

Cashing in on the craze, the J.R. Wrigley Corporation commissioned a series of ads portraying “hip”, “with-it” kids and their seemingly aloof, uptight teachers and parents. As if to accentuate the generational divide, the adults sported archaic hair dos and ancient clothing. The icing on the cake- the “It’s for you, not for them” slogan- was slapped on, and advertising history was born.

Kendall seems to agree- “They [Wrigley] did a great job of appealing to kids on a level they can relate to. They also capitalized on a trend to appeal to kids on a fun and frivolous level, rather than one that was logical or had the approval of adults.”

In fact, Wrigley did such a good job connecting with kids that, in Kendall’s own words, “they helped legitimize the division between kids and adults.” Suddenly 9, 10, 11, and 12 had a product and a sub-culture of their own, one which parents had little influence over. Kids used Bubble Tape to wrap goods up, and even create streets for match box cars.

But just as soon as the Bubble Tape Revolution began, it ended. As sales for bubble gum declined in the mid-to late 90s, manufacturers struggled to stay relevant with the maturing Millennial demographic. Sometime in the mid-90s a second advertising campaign was issued, with a cheeky slogan “Six Inches of Fun.” As the 20th Century came to a close and idealism for the new century increased, Bubble Tape was fast being considered a relic of an earlier, less optimistic time.

However, Bubble Tape did not disappear entirely. Instead, the brand was rechristened Hubba Bubba, and retooled to appeal to the 9-10 year old demographic. To this day, anyone who types in www.bubbletape.com in their search bar will be redirected to the Hubba Bubba website, and as recently as a few months ago, rumors have been circulating on the Internet alleging that Hubba Bubba may be phased out of stores over the next several years.

Despite Bubble Tape’s rocky history, the brand has proven to be a profitable one for Wrigley. While hard figures are hard to come by- I attempted to contact representatives of the gum manufacturer, to no avail- according to the 2006 edition of Plunkett’s Food Industry Almanac, the Wrigley Co. grossed over $4.1 million in 2005.

As for Lutz, the former little leaguer has managed to parlay his nostalgia into a profitable and media-savvy way. He has a website, www.retrocommercials.wordpress.com, and a page on MySpace.

“Overall,” he said, “I would rate my experience with Bubble Tape as very good.”

-John Winn