One of my absolute favorite pastimes, specifically when it comes to working on this site, is to dig into the history of brands that were launched during the decade, and to research a bunch of imagery from my collection of mom-magazines (like Working Mother or Woman’s Day.) Even when I set out to look up something fairly innocuous, like fruit snacks, a story usually ends up unfolding in the ads. It’s like tugging at a thread in a sweater and then the next thing I know I have the pieces of a weird tale all scrambled up at my feet. I just have to reconstruct it to understand it better. I’ve been spending a lot of time during this quarantine organizing my files and looking into old ideas for pieces I eventually wanted to write at Branded. One of these digital folders contained a bunch of old fruit snack magazine scans that I’d pulled years ago (a mix form the Google magazine archive as well as my own hard-copy collection of magazines), so I decided to start pulling at that thread to see where the story took me.
Generally there were two main brands of fruit snacks in the 80s. If your folks weren’t picking up Joray Fruit Rolls or Fruit Leathers in the health food store or Del Monte dried Fruit Snacks, then you were probably either a Fruit Corners or a Sunkist family (the third main competitor Farley really didn’t begin fruit snacks in earnest until about 1990.) Though Joray kicked off the fruit snack crazy in the mid 70s, it was Fruit Corners (a General Mills brand that has been sold under the Betty Crocker label since the late 80s, like ’88 or ’89) who picked up the ball and really rand with it. According to internet history (and the same copied and pasted story that makes the rounds on most sites bothering to talk about Fruit Corners fruit snacks), the company launched it’s flagship product Fruit Roll-Ups in 1983. The thing is though, there are magazine advertisements that very clearly disprove this. In fact, the earliest advertisement that I could source comes from the General Mills site itself and features an ad dated 1980. Even crazier is that the boxes are clearly Betty Crocker-branded, a full decade before this would become the standard branding.
At first I thought this might just be some piece of internal General Mills advertising, but then, while flipping through an October 1982 issue of Woman’s Day I found another advertisement that was also closely in line with the above branding, except it featured BOTH Betty Crocker and Fruit Corners branding. So weird! Both feature the four original fruit varieties, Apricot, Starberry, Apple and Cherry. And even though the first ad only shows the Fruit Rol-Ups partially unwrapped in the basket (the outer wrapper has been removed, but the plastic backing is still on them), keen eyes will notice that you can see the wrapper version in the Apple and Cherry boxes. Also, in the ad above, though it’s almost impossible to make out, the flavors were featured on oval color bursts underneath the “Chewy Fruit Snack” tagline. You can make out a bit of the green oval on the Apple box above.
Here’s a commercial that I believe is from this 1980-81 era of the Fruit Roll-Ups release (complete with just the Betty Crocker logo, no Fruit Corners to be found.)
The main differences between the above boxes and the ones below is that the “Made with Real <insert fruit here>” corner call out graphics were dropped, new pictures of the fruit were used, the Fruit Corners logo was slapped across the top, and instead of having the Betty Crocker spoon logo “push” the word “Fruit” to an almost right justified version of the logo, it’s below the logo in the 1982 ad. So my first main question with these fruit snacks becomes, were these being tested-marketed for years before they hit a country-wide roll-out, or were they available years before even the official sites list them as being released?
Here’s a commercial from 1982 that features just the four main flavors and the box above…
By the time 1983 rolled around we’d be seeing a new ad campaign that seemed to hang around for a couple of years that treated the overall ad as if it were a box of the fruit snacks itself. They still featured both the Betty Crocker and Fruit Corners branding, but it leaned way ore heavily towards FC. All three of these original advertisements treated the product as if it were just being introduced, so it only adds to the mystery of the true original release of the snacks.
Before we move on to the next Fruit Roll-Ups ad, I just want to point out that even after three years of testing and releases (and if we’re to believe the General Mills site, five additional years, 1975-1980, for almost a whole decade of product testing), the delivery vehicle, in particular the packaging, of these snacks was still only about 50% of where it needed to be. I remember loving these so much, but it was a pain to get the fruit snack off the plastic backing. It was so stuck on at times that in frustration I would cut the Roll-Up in half with scissors and then pop a half in my mouth. Then I’d just chew the whole thing until it stopped tasting like fruit snack and started just tasting like plastic. I know this sounds so stupid, but I can’t be the only kid who did this right?
Anyway, by 1984 we got our first new flavor when General Mills introduced Grape Fruit Roll-Ups. You can also see on the box that the Betty Crocker logo is being pushed further and further down towards the bottom of the box.
Here’s a commercial from 1984 when Grape was the newest flavor variety (the youtube video says it’s 1980, but I’m 99% sure it’s actually 1984)…
After 1984 the Fruit-Roll up craze must have hit high gear, because by 1985 there would be 8 flavor varieties including the newly launched Watermelon flavor. It was around this time that I feel like certain flavors would take center stage in food marketing and every single similar product or anything utilizing fruity flavors would jump on the bandwagon. Makes me wonder if 1985 was the year of watermelon. I remember watermelon gum and Jolly Ranchers being a big deal at the time, but it’s hard to nail down when the flavors were actually introduced. The ad mentions 8 flavor varieties, six of which I’m aware of (Cherry, Strawberry, Grape, Apricot, Apple and of course Watermelon), but what were the other two? Again, eagle-eyed viewers will notice that there are Orange and Raspberry varieties in these two 1985 commercials…
1985 is also the year that Fruit Roll-Ups dropped the Betty Crocker logo from the packaging. Oh and that coupon clearly states that it never expires, so if Watermelon Fruit Roll-Ups are a thing, I’m so cashing it in…
1985 is also a banner year in fruit snack technology as we saw a new competitor enter the fray as Sunkist debuted their amazing line of Fun Fruits and Fruit Rolls products!
Sunkist Fun Fruits were like the hyper new cousin of Fruit Roll-Ups that came in paper/foil packets full of bite-sized happiness. Fun Fruits were way more like the candy of the fruit snacks world because they were like “healthy” Skittles or jelly beans. If memory serves, they were a smoother chew than Fruit Roll-Ups with less noticeable fruity fiber, and they had a slightly oily feel to them. But no matter which way you cut it, whatever camp you fell into, you have to hand it to Sunkist because their introduction of Fun Fruits changed the landscape of fruit snacks forever. The war for fruity dominance had begun.
If 1980 through 1985 was the emergence of Fruit Corners as the largest supplier of fruit snack to kids, then 1986 was the year they decided to up the ante and attempt total domination on the market with the introduction of two new forms of fruit snack products, the Fruit Bars and the Fruit Wrinkles. Fruit Bars (introduced in late 1984) were for the kid who polished off a box of Fruit Roll-Ups in a single afternoon and needed ALL of the fruit NOW. They were like eating four fruit leathers all at once, but way softer. I have fond memories of these being soft, yet dense and kind of amazing. Fruit Wrinkles on the other hand were a reaction to Sunkist, who made quite a splash in the fruit snack market in 1985 with their line of Fun Fruits products. Whereas Fun Fruits were softer than Fruit Roll-Ups, Fruit Wrinkles went in a completely different direction as they were super chewy, I’d go so far as to even say hard. They were also super tangy if memory serves tasting like they were bursting with vitamin C.
The war for fruit snack domination heated up in 1987 as both Fruit Corners and Sunkist decided to throw dairy into the mix with their new offerings, Fruit Corners Fruit Swirl Bars and Sunkist Creme Supremes! Whether it was adding real cream to the Fruit Bars or covering Fun Fruits in yogurt, both companies were now in all out war trying to carve the biggest slice of the snack aisle in the grocery stores.
So, with total transparency here, I hated the Creme Supremes and the idea of having to eat an entire Fruit Swirl bar sounds like torture to me. As much as I love fruit snacks, I kind of despise shelf-stable dairy products that aren’t Easy Cheese (though we all know Easy Cheese is anything but cheese.) I remember my mother thought I loved these, and in turn the Del Monte brand yogurt-covered raisins too. I couldn’t even give those away in the lunchroom at school. And lastly, before I move on I just want to say that Creme Supremes sounds like a bad porno DVD distributor or something.
1987 wasn’t all bad though as Sunkist was ramping up the battle plan by taking Fun Fruits to their ultimate destiny where they reinvented the gummi bear for a new generation by introducing Fun Fruits Shapes! That’s right, not only were they mixing things up by adding even more fun to this “fruit” with animal, letter and number shapes, but they were also crossing the streams by mixing p the fruit flavors all in one pouch! This was a new development that would forever change the fight between Fruit Corners and Sunkist as in the next few years made clear that the battlelines in this war would be drawn not with the product itself, but with the licensing that they could superimpose onto the product.
Of course Fruit Corners would not take this lying down. They hit back hard on two fronts. The first was to develop something new and novel that Sunkist dared not copy or else they’re forsake their ingrained fruit-centric theme. That’s right, in 1987 General Mills, under the Betty Crocker branding, introduced Pudding Roll-Ups! Hell, if Jell-o could make a fortune selling Pudding Pops, why couldn’t Fruit Roll-Ups ditch the fruit in lieu of butterscotch, milk chocolate and chocolate fudge?! And the commercial! Who could say no to a young Seth Green…
The other front Fruit Corners took in 1987 was straight up calling Sunkist out on the healthiness of their product. General Mills tried to appeal to moms by introduced a whole series of “Think Twice” ads aimed at shaming Sunkist directly; going so far as to actually feature their products in a General Mills ad campaign.
Over the course of the next few years a lot of the back and forth in the fruit snack wars was concentrated in the arena of shapes. Sunkist came out swinging hard by introducing Fun Fruits Dinosaurs and more impressively, Spooky Fruits. Year-round Halloween-shaped fruit snacks?! Damn, I miss the 80s.
Of course, Fruit Corners was planning an amazing launch of their own fun shapes with the introduction of Thunder Jets and Shark Bites!
This was the final battle that matter to me as a kid, and Fruit Corners won the war. I think between the years of 1989 to 1992 I must have consumed my own weight in Thunder Jets and Shark Bites. Never has there ever been fruit snacks that so perfectly aligned with my interests. Both of these were also so popular that it opened the door to tons of licensing deals with major brands. In the 90s, after they’d finally drop the Fruit Corners moniker and settle on Betty Crocker, there would be all sorts of pop culture fruit snacks and by the time the 21st century rolled around General Mills would reign supreme with amazing licensing deals, partnering with brands like the Garfield, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Scooby Doo, Pokemon and Star Wars. This isn’t even considering new product launches like Gushers or Fruit By The Foot. Though Sunkist would survive the war, and are still producing fruit snacks to this day, they’ve never managed to get to the heights of their 80s era Fun Fruits days. And though there have been other strong contenders over the years, namely Farley (who landed such licensing deals as the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Creepy Crawlers, and Nickelodeon) or Grist Mills (who produced snacks for The Real Ghostbusters, Hot Wheels and the Peanuts), no one has been able to take down General Mills in the fruit snack department.
Did you choose a side? If so what are some of your favorite fruit snacks of bygone days?