Restocking on chewing gum recently (an ugly habit, I admit) I found that the packaging had changed significantly and seemed, prima facie, to have taken a turn for the worse. The photo below shows the old and new package side by side – which do you think is the new packaging?
If you thought the container on the right, you’d be wrong. Although the right hand container has the curving form and sweepy dynamic background graphic of something from another planet in a long distant future – complete with grippy detailing around its top edge, to hold on to it with a spacesuit glove in zero gravity – it has been replaced by the rather plain container on the left.
Why would Wrigleys take what looks like a step backwards?
The container on the right comes in three separate parts – a white plastic ‘body’, a white plastic ‘head’, and a transparent delivery mechanism dispatching either a large or small number of pieces by lifting a large or small tab respectively. There is also a shrink-wrapped label, shrunk, like a figure-hugging dress, on to the curvaceous body of the container. That is four parts to mould and form, and four separate operations to piece it all together.
The container on the left is made of one piece of plastic, the body and lid coming from the same piece of material. Graphics are added with a simple sticker. That is two parts to make and a much easier process to bring them together. A smaller and more regular shape will also mean more can be transported in bulk for the same volume. So the decision looks like a simple decision about reducing complexity and saving costs.
It is never that simple though, is it? Cost is the pretext, but what is the subtext?
Look again at the left hand container. What does that plain container remind you of? Something out of the medicine cabinet perhaps? Maybe Wrigleys are now using the same production line as Bayer – chewing gum in one, paracetemol in another. What it suggests to me is a change of meaning for the chewing gum contents, from frivolous pieces of confectionary to ‘tablets’ that are good for you. (The ‘approved’ by the British Dental Health Foundation stamp attests to its goodness.) A medicalization of chewing gum from sweet to supplement. The new packaging is crucial for this transfer of meaning to take place because the contents have remained exactly the same – a 1.5cm oblong shape. Gum is good – you can buy it guilt free!
The classic chewing gum packaging is Wrigley’s gum – Juicy Fruit (yellow), Spearmint (white) or Double Mint (green) – each piece of gum a rolled out piece of fawn coloured oblong, carefully wrapped in its own saw-tooth edged foil. 8 pieces of gum and 8 pieces of foil! How valuable each piece was to prospective cowboys everywhere; it took a lot to give one away. You can still get it, but it won’t do you any good. Cowboys have long since lost their teeth (not so many dentists in the wild west) or died of lung cancer from smoking too many Marlboros. The future, as Damien Hirst has showed us, is pharmaceutical.