Penny dreadfuls are sweet- shop sweets, and some of the old favourites are still in business: candy shrimps (1p), fruit salads (1p), foam teeth (1p), giant Refresher chews (15p), and lengths of green bootlace filled with white goo that are like electric kettle flex to eat (10p). However, they now sit on the counter side by side with a new generation of new, altogether more streetwise sweets.
The new penny dreadfuls put you in mind of some kind of street drug for the under 10s: the most popular brands are getting harder and brasher by the month. Nerds, Dweebs and Runts - rattling little packets of coloured candy like mutant Tic-Tacs (ingredients: sugar, dextrose, glucose syrup, malic acid, flavourings and three E-
numbers) - are the current hot buys on the way home from school. Willy Wonka, the sweets' manufacturer, is even bringing out a limited edition this month (23p dreadfuls in fact) called Neon Nerds, which come in 'two electrifying flavours - LightningLime and ElectroOrange'.
Neon Nerds provide an initial overwhelming blast of citric tang, and end up tasting like a fistful of sweet gravel. The television ad shows a large, animated mouth, surrounded by references to rave culture and computer games. (Some market research in the US, where the sweets originate, has claimed that children who eat Nerds, Dweebs and Runts don't like their teachers, are less likely to enjoy being with their family, and generally have low self- esteem.)
Damian Lanigan, an account planner at the advertising agency J Walter Thompson who deals with the big confectionery guns such as Kit Kat and Lion Bar, has studied children's tastes. 'Mums are the biggest purchasers of sweets, and up to about the age of four, children get soft, milky, small and bland things, like Buttons. Then as they get into school life and become socialised there's a massive increase in choice and sweets become a trendy currency. Things like effervescence, hardness, intensity of colour and flavour become more important. It's just like the way we develop our palates by going from milk to squash to pop to lager. As they get bigger still they progress to the Chocolate Challenge - eating the real gut-fillers like a whole Mars bar or a Yorkie. To a little kid that's the equivalent of drinking a yard of ale.'
In a survey of two classes at Chickenley Junior School in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, and Malin Bridge Primary School in Sheffield, South Yorkshire, most kids singled out Boosts, Bounties and Mars as their favourites, but there was a keen undercurrent of admiration for 'sour' and 'juicy' sweets such as Nerds and Dweebs, and praise too for Maltesers, whose 'holes curl around my tongue,' as one girl put it.
Growing children look for a more challenging eat, and as parental approval declines with the amount of challenge (ie how disgusting the sweets are to adults), so a little act of rebellion occurs. McCowan's now make a toffee licorice chew called a Lick Bar, in which crystals of citric acid pepper the outside and provide a flavoursome rush before you settle into the blander chew. Citric acid is normally mixed through the chew mixture, to bring out the flavour like salt, but here, for the sake of novelty, it has been stuck on the outside.
Anyone regretting the fact that children seem no longer content with a quarter of aniseed balls and a sherbert fountain won't be happy to hear that the makers of Love Hearts are bringing out a line called Jibes. Same format, different sentiment - this time, instead of picking out a sweet bearing the message 'Love You' or 'Kiss Me', you risk being called a dork, wally, wimp, nerd or bozo when you dip into the packet.
A spokesman for a large confectioner which distributes many small lines thinks that the children's market will always be in a state of flux. 'It's all very faddy - Dirt Balls, Terror Eyes, Foam Gnashers, giant jelly rats . . . there's even a gummy Nose Picker, shaped like a jelly finger.'
There is some good news for peppermint-sucking traditionalists however - Lucky Bags are back. The sealed paper bag containing a variety of modest sweets, stickers and toys have been revived by Mr Lucky Bags, a company in Biddulph, Staffordshire. Commercial Director Robert Cawley explains the secret of their success. 'Lucky Bags cost sixpence in the Sixties, which was quite a price, but were high quality. Kids always know when they are being ripped off.
'Our bags have a perceived value of 75p but retail at 50p. And whereas adults tip everything straight out, kids reach in and remove each item one by one because they relish the 'Ooooh factor'.' Clearly the yuk factor is something people develop later in life.
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