[Ed. note: Alexander Luft is an umpteen-time published writer who has espoused on the human form as it relates to Scrabble, Jeopardy and people. Together, we have been involved in kidnappings, weddings and press releases. His dog loves and fears me.]
I’d like to write about what candy means to us. I want to write about the distance between our lives as we live them and our lives as we’d imagine them.
Or maybe I really just want to write about PayDay.
The peanut-encrusted treat was developed in 1932 by the Hollywood Candy Company, which was based in the other Hollywood, the one in Carver County, Minneapolis. These were the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt vs. Herbert Hoover. These were the days at the outset of the Depression. The American Gross National Product had fallen 31 percent since Black Tuesday.
Ever optimistic, the men of the Hollywood Candy Company perfected the recipe for a bar of nougat and salted peanuts. This bar, they might have believed, would change things. It had sweetness, it had crunch. It had everything except for a name.
According to legend, the men of Hollywood Candy were at a loss for the name. Then one of them remarked that at least it was pay day at the company. These were the worst years, economically speaking, of our history. In 1932, the U.S. unemployment rate topped 23 percent.
Over 13 million Americans had lost their jobs since the beginning of the financial crisis. The Hollywood men named their bar PayDay.
Back then, that candy, that name, was perhaps the one thing that most of us wanted. And yet how many saw a PayDay in a candy shop and reached into their pockets, felt nothing there, and had to just imagine how it tasted? Could there have been anything quite as sweet as a PayDay?
Of course, I can’t leave the PayDay story there. Not with all the overwhelming irony. Instead I’ll move forward a half-century, when the marketing executive in charge of PayDay announced that the company would embark on a new initiative in which nickels would be packaged in 12.3 million candy bars. This was 1988.
When asked about the nickel giveaway, John T. “Jack” Sleten said, “We think it will sell products.”
It had been proven, you see, in a test market in St. Louis, Missouri. People just went nuts about these nickels. PayDays cost 40 cents a piece. Sales rose 375 percent in the test market. It was better than just getting 5 cents off a PayDay.
By the way, in 1988, the average American taxpayer brought home $33,400 a year, adjusted for inflation. And with this new promotion, you got to actually unwrap a shiny new nickel, right from the mint. It was like holding a piece of American history.
“When was the last time you got a nickel in a candy bar?” Sletten asked a reporter from the Chicago Tribune. His question was a rhetorical one.
So what about today’s PayDay? IRS records show that in 2008, the average taxpayer brought in $400 less per year than his 1988 counterpart. We need not look far to understand the politics of the 1 percent, the widening wealth gap or the lack of a living wage for millions. We needn’t look far, either, to break off a piece of a PayDay.
But we might ask of PayDay, whose sister candy is the Good and Plenty, whether we are getting closer or further away from our confectionary ideal.