The year 2019 was one of peak brand thirst. Companies went to unprecedented lengths to carve out ironic, captivating internet identities, whose products and content—eyebrow gel, cooking videos—you’d want to consume immediately. They memed their workplaces; they drew conclusions about your zodiac sign; they posted pics of weary alpacas with captions like, “Real life photos of us today,” to signify that they were just as cool as your Greenpoint-dwelling friend who drinks Amaro casually and never appears stressed at her own dinner parties.
As brands battled it out for our attention many companies turned to publicity stunts. Consider Disney+’s 600-tweet birth announcement for its new platform, or performative collaborations like the Adidas x Arizona Iced Tea 99-cent sneakers. This strategy flourished especially in the snack world—where the wares are inherently graphic and enticing (mayo swaddling a soft-boiled egg so sensually it’s basically NSFW) and the appeal is truly universal (everyone has to eat).
In 2019, snack enthusiasts could have elected to spend August at The Bell, a Taco Bell pop-up hotel in Palm Springs, where rooms sold out in two minutes. They could have screened Reese’s 82-minute feature film about all the ways to eat its cups, plus, bizarrely, ASMR. They could have visited Earth’s first silent Burger King drive-thru in Helsinki, or watched chicken sandwich purveyors volley incendiary tweets back and forth like tennis balls. And they were spoiled for choice, with what felt like a record number of new novelty snacks emerging all year long in a parade of loud packaging and louder social media reveals, each carefully constructed to create buzz.
Some went viral, some did not. Accordingly, I took a long, hard look at eight novelty snack releases from 2019, ranked them in order of least to most experimental, and have attempted to examine whether each gamble was worth its weight in corn syrup. To the guy who recently gave me side-eye for eating dry Twinkies Cereal on an airplane, this one goes out to you.
In May, Hershey’s announced that, for the first time in its 125-year history, it would be changing the look of its iconic chocolate bars. The big revamp? Engraving each one with popular emoticons. Which I suppose could have been perceived as experimental for the snack magnate had the company suspected a large part of their customer base harbored a deep-seated fear of the ghost emoji. But as far as brand boldness goes, these chocolate bars were about as adventurous as a dad joke.
How it actually tastes: The Emoji Bar presents exactly as Hershey’s milk chocolate has presented since 1900: smooth, a little cloying, and gratifying despite being unremarkable, like when anyones’ college roommates give a joint wedding toast.
Did the degree of experimentation pay off? They launched this summer, but I, a consumer who actively reads about snacks at least three times a day (unless you’re my editor and I’m on deadline, in which case my internet is still broken), didn’t hear of them until December. Low risk, low reward, bottom ranking.
Suggested experiments for 2020: Whoppers the size of the moon, a Heath bar except it’s also a boyfriend, a Peppermint Pattie you can use to brush your teeth.
Who among us eating Reese’s cups is not already a peanut butter lover? The PBL varietal was released in April alongside a fraternal twin, the Chocolate Lovers iteration—and both presented a mere doubling down on features customers already treasured. Which is to say: The Lovers Cups are no more experimental than showing up to a blind date having already Google-stalked your companion, or gifting a close friend cash. The only true risk: making the PBLs “limited edition.”
How it actually tastes: The PBL is similar to a standard grade Reese’s, with slightly more body and legs (a.k.a. peanut butter). Blindfolded, I’m not confident I’d know the difference.
Did the degree of experimentation pay off? A cursory Twitter search reveals only a handful of mentions—and, damningly, that the PBLs first emerged briefly in 2009. Apparently, the 2019 Lovers Cups spawned spinoff Krispy Kreme x Reese’s doughnuts, also limited run, a collaboration so up my alley I’m surprised I’m not currently living inside one. Yet, none of these products landed on my radar until way after the fact. A mild but undeniable failure, from a stunt perspective. (Though I have since followed The Reese’s Guy.)
Suggested experiments for 2020: Reese’s made completely of kale, but which still taste exactly like Reese’s.
The Popeyes Chicken Sandwich
On August 12th, Popeyes took to Twitter to announce their new chicken sandwich. Almost immediately, Chick-fil-A lashed out, touting their “original” version. Popeyes replied “… y’all good?” With that, 2019’s chicken sandwich war had kicked off. Hour-long lines outside Popeye’s ensued. Someone tried to sell one on eBay for $7,000. And by August 28th, the sandwiches were officially sold out. It’s no wonder: people love an internet fight, they love fried chicken, and this time, said chicken came on a still-warm brioche bun without a side of moral outrage. Still, for Popeyes, the experimentation was nominal, lest they feared a last-minute, nationwide poultry recall, or worse, a Twitter blackout.
How it actually tastes: Yes, the Popeyes chicken sandwich is worth the hype, with meat so tender it seems to burst out in song, gloved by bracingly crispy breading, and sandwiched between a bun soft enough to make Bread Face cry.
Did the degree of experimentation pay off? Justin Bieber posted a video of himself trying a Popeyes chicken sandwich, Helen Rosner proclaimed that it was here to save America, and I’m going out for another one as soon as I file this piece. In other words: yes. (Before you @ me in the comments over whether it’s a snack, the sandwich itself is small enough that you could easily consume two in one sitting. Stoners will have my back on this.)
Suggested experiments for 2020: Keep up the good work, Popeyes.
Despite Mars’ February declaration that Starburst Duos were “its latest flavor innovation,” there’s nothing inherently experimental about issuing much-adored candy in couplet form, even if the paired flavors are “unexplainably juicy.” That is, until you consider the pairings. One of the two is a strawberry-watermelon chew—a Starburst fruit salad–and the other is a blue raspberry and lemonade chew, and it is sheer chaos. They come lovingly alternated in each metallic sleeve, a subtle reminder that pandemonium lurks beneath all serenity, just waiting to be unwrapped.
How they actually taste: The strawberry-watermelon flavor is chapstick-y on the nose, and generically pink-tasting on the mouth, all in all pleasant. The blue raspberry and lemonade variety tastes like an Italian ice hurled itself into a glass of Crystal Light.
Did the degree of experimentation pay off? Despite little-to-no-internet ruckus, one might infer that the launch was something of a success, with Mars subsequently releasing both Starburst Duos jelly beans, and Starburst Duos gelatin.
Suggested experiments for 2020: You shed a single tear and, suddenly, Starbursts are there.
If you’ve ever unwittingly brought mint-chocolate brownies into your workplace, you’ve probably attested to the flavor’s divisive qualities. Hershey’s late November release of Kit Kats with a minty veneer was moderately experimental in this regard—and in the regard that there are so many types of mint (peppermint! spearmint! nonspecific chemically mint!), it would’ve been easy to go astray.
How it actually tastes: Those who stock Thin Mints year-round might enjoy Kit Kat Duos Mint + Dark Chocolate, though the wafer’s not a totally welcome textural addition to the flavor pairing, like when you add alfalfa sprouts to a turkey melt just because you already have them in the fridge.
Did the degree of experimentation pay off? This is candy known for its compelling variations. In Japan, one can eat an Apple Vinegar Kit Kat and a Wasabi Kit Kat at the same damn time. So the bar is already high in terms of creating a brand spectacle. And while it’s still early days for these Duos, it’s tough to imagine a great deal more buzz will materialize.
Suggested experiments for 2020: Bring us the Apple Vinegar Kit Kats.
The Stuffed Cheez-It Pizza
Nobody asked for this, and by “this,” I mean cheese dough stained Trumpian orange, caressing a rectangle of low-moisture mozz as if the dough were an envelope and the cheese were a hastily scribbled note. Barely bigger than an iPhone, these handheld devices subverted expectations in every way. The September release, courtesy of Pizza Hut and Kellogg, was highly experimental.
How it actually tastes: As much as the internet primed me to hate it—“Soggy,” said Aimee Levitt; “Greasy to the touch,” said Irene Jiang—I liked the Stuffed Cheez-It Pizza, with its marinara dipping sauce reminiscent of Lunchables. Let the record show that it’s no greasier than a ham and cheese croissant.
Did the degree of experimentation pay off? Multiple people texted or Slacked me about it days before the product even launched, which is more than I can say for any other product on this list and also my three most recent birthdays.
Suggested experiments for 2020: Cheez-Its stuffed with more cheez-its, and baby Yoda’s at the launch party.
Conceptually, Hostess’ Twinkies Cereal doesn’t present as all that fraught—if there exists some monster who wouldn’t want to float several Twinkies in milk, I don’t want to meet him—until you encounter the actual product. Sized and shaped like the pellets you might feed a non-cherished hamster, Twinkies Cereal kernels are actually pretty much not comparable to Twinkies at all. There is no “creme” filling. The exterior is crunchy, not lush, pillowy, and existentially affirming. Which is not to say that Twinkies Cereal has no merits. But it’s hard to see how Hostess was playing it safe when it stripped a beloved snack of all of its lauded features, Honey-I-Shrunk-the-Kids-ed it, and marketed it as a breakfast food.
How it actually tastes: Mysteriously powdery to the touch, fragrant as a Duncan Hines cake mix, and tasting uncannily like Fruit Loops, Twinkies Cereal is an enigmatic addition to the world of boxed breakfasts.
Did the degree of experimentation pay off? Twinkies joined the ranks of Claire Saffitz in securing a Grub Street spotlight from Nikita Richardson, the 2019 novelty snack equivalent of looking up while walking through Times Square to realize it’s your face on that billboard. Which, for the avoidance of doubt, is a pretty big pay-off.
Suggested experiments for 2020: A bed made of Sno Balls! Placed inside a room with walls padded by Sno Balls, in which my cell phone is unable to attract a signal.
Carrot Cake Oreos, released in January, are as experimental as the time I got a bowl cut with bangs despite having a round face, which is to say, extremely. Very few people would choose carrot cake over other cakes to begin with. And the common Oreo is milk’s favorite cookie. Taking a cult classic and flavoring it artificially to imitate a cake filled with shredded vegetables, nuts, and raisins is reckless enough to warrant the “most experimental” placement on this year’s novelty snack retrospective.
How it actually tastes: Curiously, Carrot Cake Oreos have heady funfetti vibes more than anything else, a destabilizing effect given the lack of neon sprinkles.
Did the degree of experimentation pay off? Unlike my bowl cut, Carrot Cake Oreos got a fairly decent reception, if not much of a clamor. Unlike the bowl cut, my mom hated them.
Suggested experiments for 2020: Aperol spritz Oreos.
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