How Sweet It Is

Who can take a sunrise,
sprinkle it with dew
Cover it with chocolate
and a miracle or two
The Candy Man, oh,
the Candy Man can
The Candy Man can 'cause
he mixes it with love
and makes the world taste good ...

Oh, that Candy Man was certainly a mystical, magical fellow, sprinkling chocolate, producing miracles, flavoring the entire planet with amore. But that was a long time ago, back when his youthful followers were easily sated with conventional treats. Other than the curious "groovy lemon pie," the most intriguing thing the Man had to offer was that "you could even eat the dishes."

If this Candy Man were to arrive on the scene today, he would have to have a whole new bag of glucose-ridden tricks to keep the sophisticated, worldly tots of Now interested. What self-respecting 9year-old gives a damn if the world tastes good?

Not when that kid can squeeze a nice, thick blob of Snot onto his or her finger and lap it right up. And that's green-apple Snot, my friends. Packaged in a large nose, courtesy of the savvy folks at How Can It Be So Sour Company of Covina, California. Available at your finer convenience outlets.

But Snot is just the tip of the iceberg.
The candy aisle is a different place from what it was in my day. Back then, we settled for ancient, mundane stuff such as 3Musketeers, Butterfinger, Baby Ruth, Snickers--a candy bar named after a cute laugh.

Now you've got gum in the form of checkbooks; gum that comes in little cell phones, beepers, video-game controls and trash cans; gum that comes in a big, red tongue. There are jugs of watermelon-punch-powder gum, and powdered "shake and chug" cookies and cream. There is a variety of "squeeze and eat" delicacies--Lava Lick, Sports Bottle, Chocolate Squeeze Cone, Bungee Bubble--with brightly colored gunk oozing out of mini lava lamps, or from a brown, suggestively shaped tube, or from the ankles of a mad, grinning, jumping fool. After you remove his feet.

And if we wanted snot when I was a kid, we damn well had to eat the real thing.

I went to the store, a bunch of stores in the Valley, and bought all this stuff and brought it home. From the sheer volume of what is available, I'd say it'sa tough racket. Competition is fierce. For example, there are two cell phones on the market: the Cellular Bubble Gum phone from the Amurol Confections Company, and the Gum Filled Phoney Phone from Zeebs Enterprises.

I called up Zeebs (because I liked the name better) in Fort Worth, Texas, for some inside lowdown. A woman named Linda Vinson answered.

"The packaging is the eye-catcher, that's what gets the immediate response," she told me in a fantastic Texas accent that made "eye-catcher" sound like "ah-kitshur." (To my jaded eye, Amurol's Cellular, with transparent pink plastic and 11 big hunks of gum, easily beat out the rather tiny, cheap-looking Phoney Phone of orange plastic filled with minuscule nuggets.)

Vinson got philosophical. "We're in an immediate society; immediate gratification is the big issue. Kids get bored very easily."

"High-tech accouterments" and "gross" are apparently the magic words in the business, candywise, Vinson revealed.

"One of our new products is the Kredit Kard, with gum behind the credit card. We've got the CD Disk--you open it up, and it's bubblegum shaped like a disc. We've got Goof Paste, a liquid candy. Oh, and there's the Worms in Dirt, that's with gummy worms in Oreo-cookie crumbs. Kids love that."

But has she ever tasted Snot?
"No, I haven't, but ourpresident probably has."

The Amurol company is a major player in the novelty-candy game; when I got my load home and started reading the fine print, the Amurol name was on more than half the stuff. And Gary Sheets, vice president of marketing, is the man to talk to.

"We have about three or four ways we come up with new candy," he said. "One is, we have about 15 people who work on getting to know kids, observing kids and spending time with kids. Then we have anorganization called the Candy Taster Club, which is about 3,000 kids strong. It's amazing how creative kids can be when you start asking them questions, instead oftelling them what to do."

Amurol is responsible for the Check Book gum, in your choice of plastic or paper; the Bubble Beeper, which you can clip onto your belt, just like the real thing; and the six-foot Bubble Tape roll, among many others.

"We look at what's important in a kid's world, and that's where something like a Bubble Lock [yes, a fake combination lock filled with gum] comes in," Sheets offered. "Locks are part of their lives. You have gym lockers, YMCA, school lockers; it's a way of having some independence and privacy. Not that they worship locks. But it's kind of important--when a kid has his first lock, that's kind of a first step of independence."

But checkbooks? Beepers? Cell phones? How do they fit in with a kid's world?
"Kids, forever and ever, going back probably to the beginning of time, like to emulate adults," reasoned Sheets, who sounded like he was leaning back in his chair, feet on desk, maybe lighting a cigar. "They like to act like grown-ups. So that's a big part of it. We ask kids, 'What do you see your parents doing that you would like to do?'"

I asked Sheets if the Amurol brain trust had ever come up with anything that simply went too far.

"We had a product years ago, I can't remember the name of it, but it was along the lines of those liquid-filled gums that were popular. We had it in a small package, almost like you would get ketchup in at McDonald's. Kids would buy these and smash them with their feet, and the liquid would go shooting out. We pulled that off the market because, literally, they weren't eating the product; they were using it as a projectile."

But a company called Creative Confection really has the gross market cornered, as Elaine Nicolette, secretary and relative of president Steve Nicolette--it's a family business--indicated with pride.

"We have a six-inch-long pickle. It's dillflavored bubblegum. It's called Pickle Puss. We have a banana filled with gum, we have a watermelon filled with gum, wehave a pickle whistle and we have thePower Prism--it's a kaleidoscope filled with jawbreakers. And we have the Bubble Brain; it's a human brain filled with gum. It doubles as a bank when it's through being a toy. We had something called Screaming Saucers, which turned your tongue navy blue for about six hours."

Unlike the somewhat tame PR rap thatGary Sheets laid on me, Elaine--whogladly offers that she doesn't eat whather company makes--tells it like it is:

"There's nothing too gross in this business."

So I bundled up my candy and found some kids. Which, if viewed the wrong way, would possibly get me arrested, but this was nothing like that. These kids were the next-door neighbors of a friend, and more than happy to lend honest, concise opinions. We have Megan Alire, 9; her brother Alex, 5; and their cousin Ryan, 9.

I'm no Art Linkletter, so I'll keep this to the point. We began with ...
Megan: "I would eat this. It looks good."
Alex [eating Snot]: "Mmmm. It's good. I love it."
Bubble Tongue:
Alex: "It's scary."
Ryan: "The powder gum tastes weird."
Sports Bottle versus Snot:
Alex: "Snot is much better. I love the flavor of it."
Bungee Bubble:
Ryan: "It's weird that it squeezes, and it's gum."
Alex: "I like stickable gum."
Lava Lick:
Me: "Do you know what a lava lamp is?"
Megan: "We saw one on Real Monsters on Nickelodeon.
This one is much cherrier than the Sports Bottle."
Alex: "I like candy a lot."
And so on.

The astute marketing minds at our nation's great novelty-candy companies certainly know their audience. The kids and I spent an hour squeezing stuff onto fingers, chewing wad after wad of Day-Glo-colored gum, unwrapping, spitting out, agreeing, disagreeing, debating merits heatedly, repeating the process again and again. But after all of the exciting, cool/disgusting stuff had been eaten, I whipped out my own personal generational litmus test. Surely, if one candy could bring us together, unite us in sweet tooth, it would be this:

I just happened to have a Mickey Mouse dispenser, stocked with grape.
Me: "Have you had these before?"
Megan: "Who hasn't?"
Ryan: "Oh, we've had that."
Me: "You think Pez is boring or something?"
Ryan: "I think it's good, but after you've seen it ..."