Chew On This: Gum Loses Its Pop

Gum's Decline
Kathy Kmonicek/APA garbage bin full of bubble gum, at New York City's Yankee Stadium.
By CANDICE CHOI

NEW YORK -- Gum seems as appealing as that sticky wad on the bottom of a shoe these days.

It's not that Americans still don't ever enjoy a stick of Trident or Orbit, the two most popular brands. They just aren't as crazy about chomping away on the stuff as they once were, with U.S. sales tumbling 11 percent over the past four years.

No one in the industry can pinpoint a single factor that's causing the decline -- the theories include an unwillingness to shell out $2 or more for a pack in the bad economy or that advertising veered too far from underlining gum's cavity-fighting benefits. But the biggest reason may be that people simply have more to chew on.

From designer mints to fruit chews, candy companies have invented plenty of other ways to get a sugar fix or battle bad breath and anxiety. The alternatives don't come with gum's unpleasant characteristics either, like the question of whether to spit out or gulp the remains. They're also less likely to annoy parents, co-workers or romantic interests.

"You talk to someone and they're just chomping on gum," said Matt Smith, a 46-year-old who lives Albany, N.Y. and hates gum so much he refers to it only by its first letter. "If you substitute gum for any other food, like mashed potatoes, would you find that acceptable? It's disgusting."

The gum chewing habit dates as far back as the ancient Greeks but arrived in the U.S. in its modern form in the 1860s, according to Mars, the No. 1 player in the market with its Wrigley unit.

Over the years, gum makers positioned it as a way to "Kiss a Little Longer" in the famous Big Red jingle, quit smoking, curb cravings or just make the chewer happier.
Catchy slogans or characters included the "Doublemint Twins" and Orbit's blonde spokeswoman who ends commercials with "Dirty mouth? Clean it up."

It popped up in pop culture too. In the 1960s, a genre of music aimed at younger audiences came to be known as "Bubblegum." In the 1975 movie "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," the silent Chief Bromden speaks for the first time saying, "Mmm, Juicy Fruit" after the character played by Jack Nicholson gives him a stick of the gum. And Janet Jackson played a feisty, gum-chewing beautician in the 1993 film "Poetic Justice."

But gum's image as a tasteless habit also stuck, with some high-profile gum chewing only making it worse.

In 2003, Britney Spears gave an interview to CNN where a white piece of gum could be seen floating around her mouth as she fielded questions on a range of topics, including the war in Iraq. Talk show host Wendy Williams has a "gum wall" backstage, where she sticks wads of it before walking out. In one episode, she told Patti LaBelle that she could put her gum on the wall after the singer spit out a wad into her hand.

Such imagery may be why gum is still a no-no in business meetings or first dates, according to Lizzie Post, the great-great granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post and co-author of "Emily Post's Etiquette."

"My grandmother used to tell me, 'You look like a cow chewing cud'," she said.

The habit so bothered author Malachy McCourt that the extremely long-shot gubernatorial candidate in 2006 told the New York Times he wanted to triple the tax on gum. The former Green Party nominee explained that he didn't like the mess it created on sidewalks and subways.

"The other aspect of it is that it makes people look so stupid," said McCourt, 82, in a recent interview.

Gum's bad image is one reason that alternatives look more attractive. There's also another perennial complaint: "The flavor runs out too fast," said Ryan Furbush, a 17-year-old from Sayreville, N.J. who has stopped chewing gum in favor of chewy candies and chocolates.

It may be why Mars said its gum declines have been most significant with people who are 25 and younger. In the meantime, Altoids mints, Welch's Fruit Snacks and countless other options have taken up space in the checkout aisles where most gum is purchased.

Since peaking in 2009, U.S. gum sales have fallen 11 percent to $3.71 billion last year, according to market researcher Euromonitor International. That's even as overall candy sales -- including gum, chocolate, mints and licorice -- have climbed 10 percent to $31.53 billion.

Over the next five years, Euromonitor projects gum sales will drop another 4 percent to $3.56 billion.

Hershey (HSY), which makes Reese's, Kit Kat and Almond Joy, is taking data to retailers to illustrate the slowing demand for gum. The idea is to encourage them to devote less of their candy aisles to it, and perhaps make way for more of its own products. Hershey, which also makes Ice Breakers mints and gum, is planning another blow against gum: This fall, it's slated to roll out a version of Ice Breakers that "chews like a gum, but dissolves like a mint."

Steven Schiller, global head of Hershey's non-chocolate candies including mints, said it gives gum chewers an alternative that doesn't require "disposal" at the end.

Gum makers are strategizing too. The maker of Trident, whose total gum sales were down as much as 16 percent in developed markets at one point last year, has an online campaign reminding people to run through the mental checklist before leaving the house: "phone, keys, gum."

"We know when people have gum in their pocket or backpack or desk, they're much more likely to chew it," said Stephanie Wilkes, who heads the North American candy business for Mondelez (MDLZ), the No. 2 player in gum with Trident, Dentyne and Bubbalicious.

Mars, which makes Big Red, Doublemint, Juicy Fruit and Orbit, is testing illuminated racks in candy aisles to make its gum and candy stand out more. The company said the racks have led to a 10 to 30 percent sales increase in tests.

And after years of slowly vanishing from shelves, Bazooka bubble gum last year relaunched its brand with new marketing and packaging. Distribution has since rebounded.

Still, executives are realistic about gum's turnaround prospects.

"We're not expecting any dramatic recovery in the category anytime soon," Mondelez CEO Irene Rosenfeld said during an earnings call last month.


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29 Comments

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rwilliamhoward

'I Love Chicklett's Candy Coated Chewing Gum...' went the commercial. But FAR more pepople smoked cigarettes then. And told themselves they could 'kick' the habit if they took some gum for every other smoke. So they smoked twice as much, and used the gum as well. Many fewer people smoke today, and so they don't neeed a crutch. "... I't's Refreshing As Can Be, Skeedy Whoa, Skeedy Wee, I love...."

March 21 2014 at 12:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
gort1111

One major factor is the prices have skyrocketed ( along with everything else we buy) I quit buying gum out of a gumball machine ( for the Grand daughter ) when the prices went up to 25¢ for a gumball and I quit buying the packs when stores started to ask over $2 for a pack ( for major brands) and then on top of it manufacturers reduced the size of the sticks... NO WAY .. myself & the Grand daughter can live without chewing ..... Well with the exception of when we are going to be flying and need to chew gum to help " alleviate" the air pressure in our ears ... I believe with raising their prices so high and reducing the size of the stick, The chewing gum industry is starting to slowly chew themselves out of business. ,,, They have to realize Chewing gum is NOT a necessity and it is an item that people can live without SO.... if they want to keep in business they should lower the price, bring the original size sticks back and people just may start buying it again

March 21 2014 at 11:31 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Carol

When I was working and had to drive more than half an hour to get to work in the morning, I always chewed gum, but now that I'm unemployed, I'm not in the car as much, there's no need to take out nervous traffic tensions on anything.

March 21 2014 at 11:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
John Roberson

Suppose the decrease in chewing gum usage has anything to do with the increase in depression?

March 21 2014 at 11:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
The Tranny Shop

Lets face it once again the makers change the recipie for cost reason and now it tastes like crap!!

March 21 2014 at 10:14 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
bbh907

Gum sticks to my crowns so I can't chew it.I miss it,too.I used to always chew gum.Wrigleys spearmint was my favorite.

March 21 2014 at 9:26 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to bbh907's comment
Carol

Freedent doesn't stick to crowns.

March 21 2014 at 11:01 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
outsidert

I do not chew gum because I cannot. All gum on the shelf containes ASPARTAME and whenever I have a product that contains it I get a headache within 15-20 seconds (that is no exaggeration). I can remember when I was about 6-7 years old in 1986-87, being in a resturant with my mother and trying her diet coke and I hated the taste and I got a headache in seconds. I am 33 now and I still get the same reaction to any product with ASPARTAME. Next time you are in a grocery store, check the packages of gum; you will see ASPARTAME as an ingredient in all chewing gum.

March 21 2014 at 9:24 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to outsidert's comment
xraybrain

Thats a good point !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!....many companies have taken the sugar out and replaced it with aspartame. I used to chew gum like a fiend but over the years have stopped. Gum generally, even the old brands does not taste as good as it used to. The flavor isn't as pronounced and the sugar is gone

March 21 2014 at 2:05 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
SHELDON

I used to enjoy chewing gum until many years ago when it pulled out a crown... this was when a big gum ball or two Chiclets from a machine cost a penny... I haven't chewed gum since.

March 21 2014 at 9:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
chrandom

I see chewing a piece of gum as a few things...to freshen your breath, if hungry, chew a piece until you can eat, that way your not mindlessly putting candy in your mouth. If you don't want to look like a cow just don't put more than one piece in your mouth at a time.

March 21 2014 at 9:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to chrandom's comment
rwilliamhoward

What ever happened to Sen Sen? It refreshed the breath, tasted OK and had no residu. The little squares came in a flat box, with a slide out with a little hole which vended the Sen Sen. Fited the pocket or purse with no problem.

March 21 2014 at 12:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Elizabeth

ON the plus side: The act of chewing gum was reported to stimulate brain power by 10%.
ON the negative side:
Maybe they should try taking aspertame out of every single brand sold. It's why I quit.

March 21 2014 at 8:54 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply