Saturday, July 4, 2015

Bonkers really was some candy!

Excerpt from a vintage print ad for Bonkers fruit candy. Artwork by Mort Drucker.

Someone saved on old strawberry Bonkers wrapper.
Does Nabisco even make candy anymore? Cookies, yes, but candy? I don't know, but they sure gave it a whirl in the go-go, profit-hungry 1980s, when every consumerist dream seemed within tantalizingly easy reach. I can imagine the marketing meetings that must have occurred then, with a slick Gordon Gecko type giving his sales pitch to the honchos at Nabisco: "I can practically taste that allowance money, boys! All we gotta do is take it right out of their sticky little hands!"

 Back in 1983, to that end, the National Biscuit Company introduced its ultimately-unsuccessful answer to competitor M&M/Mars' Starburst: Bonkers fruit candy. Chewy and gum-like in consistency, these artificially-flavored, chemically-saturated, rainbow-colored treats came in longish, skinny foil packages, just like Starburst. But Bonkers were thicker and chunkier, and each individual piece contained a core which was darker and denser than the lighter-colored outer layer. "Chewy outside, super fruity inside!" is how the ads explained it. 

I wish I could tell you to toddle on down to your local drug store or gas station and pick up a package, but that's not possible. After a few years of mid-'80s popularity, Bonkers fell out of favor and were thereafter found only in specialty candy shops. Nabisco phased the brand out sometime during the 1990s. Another candy wannabe had bitten the nougat, so to speak.

Bonkers revivals have been in the offing for the last decade or so, but nothing substantive has come of it. A nostalgia-minded confectioner called Leaf Brands, whose other products include Astro Pops, Wacky Wafers, and (ahem) Farts, purchased the Bonkers name most recently, circa 2012, and promised to bring back the beloved candy -- with additional flavors, no less. As of this writing, all Leaf Brands has done is brag a little on social media, posting to a Bonkers Fruit Chews page on Facebook as recently as April 22 . The company's self-imposed 2014 deadline for getting the candy back on store shelves was decidedly unmet, however. Here, to drive you mad, is a link to Leaf's page for Bonkers. Their current alibi? "We are in the process of acquiring the machinery needed to wrap these amazing fruit chews." A likely story, Leaf. No new Bonkers have been forthcoming. 

Previously, in 2004, a company called Joyco briefly released its own Bonkers candies, but these bore no resemblance to the Bonkers of old, leading to dashed hopes and bitter disappointment for children of the '80s.

As fondly remembered as the candy is, it cannot compare to the popularity of the TV and print advertising campaign for Bonkers. Rather like Burma-Shave, with its famous rhyming highway signs, Bonkers was a case where the promotion easily overshadowed the product. Bonkers' commercials, which debuted in '83 along with the candy, memorably centered around a demented Southern housewife -- most online descriptions call her an "old lady," but I'd say she's no more than middle-aged -- who generally speaks in a monotone directly to the camera. Try as I might, I could not find the name of the actress who played this part so wonderfully and with such gleeful malevolence. There is some speculation on internet candy forums (yes, such things exist) that it's Lily Tomlin from Rowan & Martin's Laugh In, but it's clearly not. The character may well be inspired by Tomlin, who played the vaguely similar Ernestine the Telephone Operator, but it's not her.

The Bonkers lady
Anyway, the commercials are all set in some weirdly antiquated, early 20th century version of the Deep South. Thirty seconds at a time, they give us a glimpse of a disturbing alternate universe where eating Bonkers candy causes giant pieces of fruit to come crashing down from the sky. Pop an orange-flavored Bonkers into your mouth, for instance, and within seconds you will find yourself crushed by an orange the size of a Volkswagen. 

Victims of a typical Bonkers blitzkrieg are not only pinned to the ground under Brobdingnagian strawberries and watermelons but are also overtaken by maddening, incessant laughter. "Bonkers," the ads explain, "bonk you out." The candy's very name betokens its mind-scrambling effects. Meanwhile, the victim's home has been utterly destroyed by the falling fruit. There is rubble, debris, and smoke everywhere. So Bonkers promises a delicious fruity taste along with incurable insanity and massive property damage. No wonder kids adored these commercials. They promised chaos, which children love nearly as much as sugar.

At the center of it all is our prim, apron-wearing Dixie hausfrau, the only one who seems to know the true, incredible import of eating Bonkers candy. Is she disturbed by the terrible consequences of ingesting the fruit-flavored cubes? Not at all. The stiflingly old-fashioned world she inhabits -- a snoozy place where the only "entertainment" is an upright piano in the parlor -- is so straight-laced and circumspect that she semi-secretly welcomes the anarchy brought on by Bonkers candy. 

Curiously, this woman is surrounded by doubters, skeptics, and naysayers who do not understand the awesome and terrible power of Bonkers. Their ignorance gives her a great deal of smug satisfaction, since she knows what's going to happen and they don't. "Some folks think Bonkers is gum," she intones in the most famous Bonkers ad. "They know it's candy now!" When we kids imitated these commercials in the schoolyard back in '83, this was the line we quoted to one another. At this moment, the housewife is like the token oldster in a horror movie who tries to warn the youngsters that they're headed for disaster. They never listen, of course, the fool kids. But even our savvy housewife is not immune to the wrath of Bonkers! She slyly ties to cheat fate by side-stepping the falling fruit, but to no avail. Soon, she, too, is lying helpless and prone beneath a bunch of grapes the size of beach balls. "Some candy!" she manages to get out between fits of laughter, the Bonkers-induced madness having claimed her.

Here, for your enlightenment, is a selection of mid-1980s TV commercials for Bonkers, all featuring the same superlative actress. It is perhaps best simply to enjoy the deadpan, cartoon-like surrealism of these spots and not dwell overmuch on their disturbing implications. Surely, in the Bonkers-verse, there must be occasional fatalities from the relentless fruity onslaught. And imagine the weary rebuilding which must take place in between commercials. How could construction workers, plumbers, electricians, and carpenters possibly put their hearts into their labors, knowing that all of their efforts could be wiped out in mere seconds by anyone with a sweet tooth and enough pocket change to buy a pack of Bonkers? 

One wonders, too, about the role of religion in this world. Certainly, as conservative Southerners, these characters would be regular Christian churchgoers. But how could you continue worshiping God in a world where giant berries were constantly raining down from the sky, destroying your humble property? Would you assume that Bonkers had power greater than that of God, or would you conclude that God Himself was acting through Bonkers, using the fruity delights as his instruments of wrath? These ads raise so many theological questions.

So persuasive were these ads that, apparently, some young and very impressionable viewers were taken in by them completely, not realizing that trickery and exaggeration were being employed in this fiendish marketing campaign. 

On YouTube, I found a seven-minute-long testimonial by a now-grown man who learned the hard way that television advertisements do not always tell the truth. As a 7-year-old child, he convinced his parents to buy him a pack of watermelon-flavored Bonkers, only to learn to his great disappointment that eating the candies did not cause gargantuan watermelons to descend from the sky onto the roof of his parents' Chevy Malibu. "I unwrapped the package of Bonkers," he recalled, "took out a piece of that watermelon flavor, popped it in my mouth, and started chewing. And I waited. No sound from above. No crashing. I don't hear anything. Oh, what happened? Where's my giant piece of fruit?" Eventually, after the boy burst into tears, his mother let him know the truth: "Honey, it was just an advertisement." Bonkers, then, taught this young man an important, if unpleasant, lesson about the way the world really works. I'd say, in a weird way, he actually got his parents' money's worth and more.

Print advertisements for Bonkers.
Before I let you go, I'd like to mention the concurrent print campaign for Bonkers. This, too, was memorable in its own way and helped create a strong brand identity among candy-crazed young people. During those peak Bonkers years of the mid-1980s, Nabisco advertised the product heavily in comic books. Apart from a few Marvel titles like The Amazing Spider-Man, I was pretty much a die-hard DC reader in those days, gorging myself on Action Comics and Justice League of America, and I can remember seeing such ads many times back then in those publications. 

Our disillusioned YouTuber up there remembered the comics ads, too. At one point in his tale of woe, he holds up a familiar-looking example. "Let me show you the ad," he says. "You may even recognize this, that appeared on the backs of comic book and at the checkout shelves. It says, 'BONKERS! FRUITY CANDY HITS YOU WITH A NEW FLAVOR!' And you see the old lady from the commercial, a portrait of her there with the watermelon laying across her and the different flavors."

Indeed, the mysterious housewife from the television commercials was represented via caricature in the print ads, putting her in the company of such cartoon mascots as Charlie Tuna and the Vlassic stork. When I wasn't watching cartoons as a kid, I was reading comic books, so this strange lady was never far from my mind in those days. And neither, consequently, were Bonkers candies. In my research for this article, I discovered -- to my utter delight -- that one of these ads was drawn by Mort Drucker, my favorite cartoonist from MAD Magazine. He didn't sign his Bonkers work, the way he did with his Shrunken Head Apple Sculpture ad (another comic book staple), but he scarcely needed to do so. Those hatch-marks on the lady's cheeks are unmistakable, and those blissed-out background extras are pure Drucker. Enjoy.

This Bonkers ad by Mort Drucker would certainly get me to buy the product.