Every Sunday of my mid-‘80s childhood, with religiosity, my father would walk my sister and I down to the Dépanneur in Kirkland, Quebec. Our mission was to explore the candy aisle with covetous hands. Through this weekly pilgrimage, Bonkers, Punkys, Bubblicious, Bubble Yum, Garbage Pail Kids, Bazooka Joe and other colourfully-packaged pearls quickly became fond members of our household brand family. It was a sweet pursuit rolled into Dad-time and, as a result, most of my flashbacks of this time are filtered through the lens of the saccharine stuff. As much as these memories are sweet, I remember them in vibrant, visual bursts.
Fast forward to the social media age: On a hunt for a taste of the old guard of goodies a handful of years ago, I sought an answer to the question, ‘Whatever happened to Punkys candy?’ (my favourite of all time, which I’d stock up on at a dollar store in the early 1990s). While researching the answer, I happily came across the most candy-infused and astonishingly nostalgic of Instagram accounts. It also led me to discover that, just south of the Canadian border in Astoria, Queens (NY), lives one of North America’s eminent confectionary historians, a walking encyclopedia of all things candy: Jason Liebig.
Liebig, AKA TheCandyGeek® and @CollectingCandy, is a pop-culture confectionary pundit, host, author, and consultant. He’s also the creator and publisher of CollectingCandy.com, “a pop-cultural celebration of confection, its packaging, history, marketing, and the people behind it all.” In addition to archiving the packaging from some of the world’s most beloved candy and junk food brands, Liebig is a true candy historian, whose deep research-dives into candy marketing and production have made him a compelling confectionary story-teller. His archives are not growing dust, either: Pieces from his well-preserved archive have been featured prominently on popular period TV shows and movies, including Mad Men, Stranger Things, The Goldbergs, and Stephen King’s It. He’s also hosted his own television show, Food Flashback on the Cooking Channel, been featured in the New York Times, and hangs out regularly with his friend Rob Nelson, the founder of the beloved Big League Chew.
It’s a sweet life.
In Part I of our chat in the Visual People series, we discuss Liebig’s origin story (including a stint at Marvel); his mission of bringing candy into the limelight; what candy can teach us about marketing; and why candy is so key to popular culture and our life experience. Be sure to read Part II, up next in the series.
SM: Being an archivist, candy enthusiast and nostalgia nut myself, I have followed @CollectingCandy on Instagram for years. It’s been entertaining to watch your work direct you to so many opportunities and make its way into other mediums (like TV!). Just to catch up here: What have you been working on lately?
JL: Well, 2017 was definitely a big year for me on the media front. I helped develop and was the host of my first TV show [Food Flashback], which was an amazing process. I’ve also been doing some brand consulting, and I’m hoping to finally settle down and put the work into a book this year. Oh, in 2017 I also made it into the New York Times, which was a fun moment for me.
SM: You’ve definitely made it into the Big League (Chew). Oh god, I need to hold off on all the potential puns.
JL: Hah! Yes. It IS ripe for them. The subject matter offers a lot to chew on, pun-wise. I’m here all week.
SM: Cert-ainly! Moving on: As much as candy tastes divine (most of the time), it is a highly creative, visual part of our culture, tied to marketing, design, and our visual experience. You’ve been acquiring, cataloguing, and sharing your knowledge on the packaging and the stories behind many beloved candy and junk foods brands. How far back does your archive extend?
JL: My archives go back awfully far, and I do look at adding to them even if my personal focus is on post-war packaging. But I have many pieces from the 1920’s on, with a smattering of items that date back to around 1900. I recently acquired an amazing Tobler wrapper (European) from 1928 that features Bibendum, the Michelin Man; so that was an especially weird and awesome one to find. I love branding and mascots, particularly cross-branding.
SM: Is yours a global archive?
JL: My archives and collection draw from all over the world, but my focus is certainly the United States brands and brand-histories, and that expands out to being interested in brands that are here that also have international offerings (so, I’ll look for Kit Kats, Skittles or Snickers pieces from other countries as they offer easy context to my American archives). Japan is also a keen interest of mine as they have long developed amazing packaging and fun candy/chocolate products.
SM: How did you fall into this extraordinarily unique role as candy ambassador?
JL: I suppose the bug has always been in me; I was always fascinated with collecting. As a kid, my brother and I collected trading cards and comic books, as well as Star Wars ephemera. Jumping towards more recent history: I’ve long been interested in design, and it was this interest that landed me in the business of collecting candy. In the 1990’s, I was one of two story/art editors overseeing the X-Men family of comic books for Marvel Comics (notably, I got to meet Stan Lee as a result!). I loved working with my designers and artists and learning why they did what they did, and learning from other more seasoned editors why we did what WE did. So when I eventually left that career, I had the bug. Eventually, during my deep dive into design, I found a book called Krazy Kids’ Food (by Dan Goodsell and Steve Roden) dedicated to kids packaging from the 1950’s to1970’s; I was blown away. After some time to let it percolate in my brain, I came up with this simple thought: “Wouldn’t it be fun to have a Super Sugar Crisp cereal box from when I was a kid, and a Hot Tamales box, and maybe a Marathon bar wrapper and have those on display in my office?” It soon became a deep, all-encompassing pursuit. Rather than just being a collector though, I found myself obsessed with documenting it all; at the time, I shared high resolution scans of what I’d acquire on Flickr. Eventually that led me to focusing on confectionery brands and packaging, but not before doing a lot of historical digging. Flickr would eventually give way to launching CollectingCandy.com in 2012: The impetus for that launch was that I was creating this amazing archive on Flickr of things you couldn’t find anywhere else, and lots of bloggers were getting lots of mileage out of it, so I wanted to share in that fun. I also wanted to use the site as a precursor to a book. But after nearly 650 articles and somewhere in the realm of 7,000 images, the challenge becomes choosing what makes it into that book project.
SM: Let’s talk television and film for a moment. I know that pieces from your archive (or copies of them) appear on some of the most beloved shows of late. Can you tell me the products from your archive that appeared on screen?
JL: In the years I’ve been doing what I do, I’ve published probably around 10,000 images from my collection and archive, and can confidently say that if you see an image of a candy wrapper or box online, there’s a better-than-odds chance that I published it, even if I’m not credited as such. So, as TV shows were seeking authenticity for their props and art departments, they began to inevitably find their way to me. Having the unprecedented archives that I have, where in most cases I’m the only game in town (I’m looking at your 1980’s-era Eggo boxes), most productions found me and sought my service and consultation. Some productions, I’m sad to say, sought to simply use my published images without asking (but that’s a whole other sordid thread). But for the productions and art departments that are professionals, they’ve found that I’m a great, knowledgeable resource that has helped them do their jobs better (and faster). On Mad Men, for instance, I provided references to many things like a Sugar Crisp box, an FAO Shwarz shopping bag, and a number of candy wrappers. I’ve also done a tonne of work for The Goldbergs on ABC, and even provided reference to a few 1980’s bars for Warner Brothers’ adaptation of Stephen King’s It. It’s been fun to see things from my collection reproduced in TV shows and films I enjoy. It’s a nice, unexpected side street to my world.
SM: Now, aside from consulting on period shows and building up your archives, you recently had the opportunity to host your own show. What surprised you about that process?
JL: I think, given how many of these types of shows look pretty loose, it’s amazing how much dedicated planning and legwork are required to put them together ahead of time. Producers are out there busting their humps for weeks before you shoot a single frame. And then when you’re on location or on set, the crews are moving non-stop. It’s impressive and heartening. It was also fascinating to learn how the networks work and how the processes function. Also, I thought there’d be some aspect of doing a show that would be a drag for me … and I gotta say, I loved every single part of it.
SM: What segment was the most fulfilling to shoot?
JL: The one show we did had some pretty diverse segments, each one it’s own flavour and very different from the others, so I can’t say that one was more fulfilling than another, honestly. I loved getting to go on little adventures with the people that were the subjects of the segments. But, on the day we shot a McRib segment in New Jersey, we were driving around in this awesome 1970’s-era station wagon. It was hot and the wagon had no AC, and after a while, that old engine began to spit fumes into the cabin; so, by the end of that day, I was beat up and likely hallucinating from inhaling gas fumes. But even so, we had a great time. Also on the McRib segment: I’d known Todd Wilbur (of Top Secret Recipes) for years, but had only ever known him as an online friend. So when the segment was coming together, I suggested bringing him in to recreate a McRib as a cooking show segment, and when that came together it was really gratifying to finally meet and work with him in person. Also: While visiting the Post Cereal factory, it was truly fascinating to learn how much attention and care goes into making sure the product is consistent. The fact that a company can crank out tons of a food product every week, and every 12 oz box is the same as the previous, is actually pretty amazing.
SM: McRibs, cereal, so many of these products are iconic because of their packaging. For instance, if I think back to my childhood and the cereals on the table or on TV, most of these memories are visual first. What is it about candy that is so culturally indelible that it lodges itself fondly in the memory? Is it the branding that is so powerful?
JL: Brand packaging nostalgia is a big part of this for me; it was certainly the original hook that drew me in. And for my site, I get a lot of traffic based on someone wanting to see the “packaging from their youth” or their past.
SM: How do candy trends reflect what else is going on in pop culture?
JL: I think a lot about what is loosely referred to as “the geek culture”. It used to be sort of ghettoized to refer only to comic book toys and video game hobbyists, but now you can be a geek about anything. One of the reasons for that is accessibility. Want to be a geek about something? Just go online and you can find it. But getting back to comics, toys, video games, and cartoons … they’re all birthed out of this place of adolescence, and that’s where the love of candy necessarily comes from as well. It’s also when we start to have some awareness (and maybe loyalty) for brands. It’s no wonder, then, that they all take up residence in the same part of our adolescent brains. So, if you love Ghostbusters in a way that you might never love a movie made today, that might be why you similarly have a relationship to some confectionery brands. It’s easy to feel nostalgia for the ones that are lost, and the history is almost entirely missing. Most of the vintage confectionery packaging or brands that were produced or sold have been lost to time. The majority of it is unknown and undocumented.
SM: Speaking of brands crawling into our adolescent brains: For us visual noobs out there, what can candy packaging teach us about ‘good marketing’?
JL: Studies tell us that packaging actually influences the way that your brain interprets flavours. For instance, a fancy glass bottle of Scotch can actually change the way the flavours are interpreted in your mouth (it isn’t just ingredient mathematics). The packaging for things is so very important, far more perhaps than even savvy marketers might have ever suspected in the past. In 2018, most candy shelves are ruled by fewer and fewer brands. The other interesting thing that has happened is that, at least here in the USA, there’s been a balkanization of brands, meaning Hershey’s now has somewhere upwards of a dozen products under its Reese’s brand, with even more spinoff Reese’s products with that familiar Reese’s logo and colour scheme. In 1980, those would have been completely different products. Branding and leveraging of iconic brands has become a much bigger trend in 2018. And, insofar as marketing is concerned, it reveals how increasingly challenging it can be for new brands to break through. In general, consumers like mixing it up, but only so much.
SM: I asked my community some questions for you and this was one of them: What is the future of candy? Given that laws are coming into place to limit sugary drinks and other sweet products, do you see any threat to the industry overall?
JL: I do think regulations and requirements will always be an issue, and I do hope that “the fun” is not stripped away from confectionery products. I know there have been some efforts to remove mascots from sugary cereals, for instance. And I just find that would lead us to a terribly un-colourful world. Generally, fun and silliness lead to more creativity and productivity. But I understand the desire to find ways to help keep us healthier, and I respect that desire. I just don’t always see the logic in prohibition. I do think it would be wonderful if, and this is very Star Trek-ian of me, that we could develop ingredients that were just as delicious but entirely healthy. They would probably NOT be organic, but I always go back to Star Trek’s ‘Synthehol’ [a synthetic alcohol with limited effects]. But seriously, I think the future holds tonnes of innovation for candy. I think it’s going to expand in the higher end, so you’ll see more bean-to-bar organic products (there is already a huge segment) but I think you’ll just see more new product introductions and customization options. The industry, and most consumer food/snackfood/junkfood categories are already seeing massive increases in new product development; there is more an more an experiential desire found around the categories. It’s something I’ve studied and predicted for a while now.
SM: So us candy enthusiasts shouldn’t be too concerned by the Sugar as Villain stance?
JL: Meh… it’s an easy target, like attacking television-watching or video games. I don’t discount that we should be reading more and playing outside, but at the end of the day, my opinion is this: It should be about moderation, not prohibition.
Do you know someone who leads a visual life, and should be featured in this series? Are you a visual creator and are dying to discuss your work? Cool. Do you have any errors to report? Fantastic. Just Tell us about it.
*This conversation has been adapted in order to get to the heart of the interviewee’s life, work, and creative process(es). A healthy Thank-You to Jason Liebig and CollectingCandy.com for donating his expertise, time, and know-how, and giving his permission to use the above images and videos for the purposes of this article.