The Reese’s Piece

How a series of creative ads helped Reese’s peanut butter cups—and later, candy-coated peanut butter candies—conquer the world.

Hey all, Ernie here with a fresh piece from David Buck, who has managed to write the story about peanut butter cups that I saw myself writing someday. But I‘m glad he beat me to it.

Today in Tedium: Echoing the immortal words of my friend Weird Paul Petroskey, one of my favorite foods is peanut butter. (Editor’s note: So is mine. I’m surprised I’m not eating it right now.) I also have one heck of a constant craving for chocolate. Reese’s peanut butter cups aren’t just delicious, they’re a beloved part of our collective culinary lives. There’s something to be said about how a small candy became a cultural phenomenon and it all probably began with memorable ad campaigns. In today’s Tedium, we’re going to get some chocolate in your peanut butter—or perhaps some peanut butter in your chocolate. — David @ Tedium

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$1.9B

The approximate dollar amount in retail sales the Reese’s brand pulled in for their parent company Hershey’s in 2016. As reported by the consumer/marketing data site Statista, Reese’s cups—along with Kit Kat, Kisses, Ice Breakers and Hershey bars—are a significant contributor to the success of the famous chocolate colossus, not to mention one of America’s favorite candies and a Halloween staple.

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How the peanut butter madness first began

The first Reese’s cup saw the light of day a few years after its creator Harry Burnett Reese departed the Hershey company to pursue the creation of his own confections. Originally sold as part of an assorted bag of treats, the peanut butter cup distinguished itself as a hit among consumers. Eventually, the cups became the focal point of production for the Reese’s Candy Company during World War II because rationing of sugar and other ingredients made it difficult to manufacture most of their other candy. Since peanut butter was mostly unaffected and the cups were big sellers anyway, it made sense to prioritize manufacturing them. The rest is history, covered quite smoothly by the likes of Mental Floss, Atlas Obscura, Today I Found Out and Hershey’s own archival accounts.

The company was acquired by Hershey’s in 1963—culminating in the Reese’s we know today—but there’s always been something special about the candy and part of it has a little something to do with its clever marketing.

“We used Hershey’s chocolate. I guess we were a nuisance for a while, buying fifty pounds at a time. But I remember the little express wagon I used for hauling papers. [I’d] go down to the [Hershey Chocolate] office and buy fifty pounds of chocolate, haul it back to the house.”

Ralph Reese, the son of Harry, from an oral interview conducted with the Hershey’s archive. Prior to being acquired by Hershey’s, Reese’s company maintained a close relationship with the chocolate giant, which played an important role in their early advertising.

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Two great tastes that taste great together

The first “ad campaign” for Reese’s cups was simple enough—a picture of H.B. Reese’s family with the caption, “16 Good Reasons to Buy a Reese’s.” Later, Reese would advertise his candy’s connection to Hershey’s (who supplied the chocolate coating before acquisition of the company in the 1960s) with the phrase, “made in Chocolate Town—so it must be good!”

Though it may seem as if the candy never really had many competitors—Reese aggressively saw to that in the 1950s while he was still alive—Hershey’s proceeded with an advertising campaign in 1969.

They hired New York based Ogilvy Mather to oversee things and the Reese’s campaigns are among the most memorable. In a 1998 interview with AdAge, Hershey’s then-VP and general manager of chocolate marketing Mike Holmes discussed Ogilvy Mather’s wildly successful campaigns and how the two companies formed a near-symbiotic advertising relationship:

They launched Reese’s peanut butter cups with the famous “Collision” campaign using the lines “You’ve got chocolate in my peanut butter”/“You’ve got peanut butter in my chocolate.” Then, about 10 years ago, they switched to an evolutionary successor campaign: “There’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.” These efforts have driven Reese’s to the No. 1 confectionery brand.

The ads typically feature two teenagers walking on opposite sides of a street. One carries a chocolate bar, happily saying, “mmm, chocolate.” The other holds a jar of peanut butter and exclaims, “mmm, peanut butter!” They inevitably bump into each other, resulting in some of each product spilling over into the other. The second individual indignantly remarks, “Hey, you got chocolate in my peanut butter!” The first replies, “You got peanut butter in my chocolate!” They both try the new mix and are pleasantly surprised as the commercial tagline is spoken somewhere off-screen and we see a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in all its glory revealed.

The central conceit of the campaign—that two things go together in just the right way—isn’t new, but the ad campaign has influenced many things, from the way we talk about company mergers to how problems in media research and public relations are approached.

Years later, Family Guy famously parodied these early ads in the episode “PTV,” but it pales in comparison to the highly original—and hilarious—ads from the “Two Great Tastes That Taste Great Together” campaign. The campaign ran for quite some time—the earliest commercial we’ve found is from 1972 featuring a man falling down a front stoop. It was eventually replaced after an extensive run.

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Sweet Engineering

Dipping a piece of chocolate in creamy peanut butter doesn’t provide the same taste and sensation of eating a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Sure, it’s delicious—I highly recommend trying it—but it’s just not the same. A cursory glance around Quora shows genuine curiosity about how the candy is made. The folks at website Chemistry is Life laid out the chemical composition of the candy with a brief cooking video. It really is quite simple, though.

Per Andrew Reese’s book Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups: the Untold Story: Inventor, H.B. Reese, all of Reese’s candy was hand made with real cocoa butter, cream, fresh roasted peanuts and freshly grated coconut. The peanut butter cups were coated in chocolate supplied by Hershey’s and that was it—simple ingredients for a simple treat.

Today’s version of the candy is a bit more complex, but not by much. Modern day Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are made with its own peanut butter from fresh roasted peanuts on an assembly line. The chocolate is then placed into a mold and a chunk of peanut butter is placed in each one, followed by an additional layer of chocolate. A puff of air seals the deal and next thing you know, they’re on the shelves and ready to eat. That is, unless you happen to get one of the rare cups without any peanut butter in them, like what happened to Redditor alexbchillin last year.

The company made it up to him, though, by sending him a care package chock full of Reese’s goodness, demonstrating the legendary business acumen of their public relations department, even in today’s increasingly online world.

1988

The year Hershey’s rolled out the famous “How do you eat a Reese’s?” ad campaign. The famous campaign served as the successor to “Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together” and was based on market research covering the strange, ritualistic and odd ways people had been developing of eating their Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. (Seriously, have you seen Kourtney Kardashian eat one of these things?)

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30 years later, we’re still not sure how he managed to bite through the middle of it.

There’s no wrong way to eat these things

Whether it was on the radio, in print or on television, these ads were everywhere. The undeniably charming ads weren’t just funny, they were downright entertaining. Instead of pushing the product, Reese’s makes you want to engage with its candy. I recall an old college textbook Ad Critique: How to Deconstruct Ads in Order to Build Better Advertising where one of the assignments is to break down why Reese’s ads work.

We’ll spare you the homework and put it this way: they work because they’re playful and invite engagement. Other, “more sophisticated” candies do not. Have you ever put a Godiva ad next to a Reese’s ad and tried to figure out which one was more fun and inviting? (For those playing at home, the answer is Reese’s.)

The textbook points out how Reese’s uses the occupation, background, walk of life, etc. of an individual to exaggerate how they eat the eponymous candy. For example, an astronomer will eat them in phases (as the moon waxes and wanes), a kid will eat them in a profoundly weird way (kids are weird sometimes), a vampire will eat the peanut butter first (because he’s sucking out its “blood”). In the end, the ads spotlight the uniqueness of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup consumers, providing a friendlier, more natural, almost human connection to the candy maker.

The campaign ran for nearly 15 years and spawned countless classic ads focusing on the unique and individualistic nature of its consumers. What it ultimately leads up to is a concise, effective ad campaign that has been remembered long after it ended. After parting ways with Ogilvy & Mather in 2005, Reese’s ads have tried a variety of different things including leveraging social media, their slick, operatic “still perfect” ads and that weird Cupspiracy thing they did to promote and hype their Crunchy Cookie Peanut Butter Cup.

Tedium’s five favorite ways … to eat a Reese’s

5. It’s Doggone Good! In this hilarious spot, a cowboy attempts to eat some chocolate as he mounts a horse...and falls over dipping his chocolate in a fellow cowboy’s styrofoam bowl full of creamy peanut butter. They make the customary exchange and realize Reese’s are “doggone good!”

4. How Charlie Armstrong Eats a Reese’s. Young dominoes champ Charlie Armstrong demonstrates how he eats a Reese’s by setting up a large number of candy bars and collapsing them in a line—just as any dominoes champ likely would. There really is no wrong way to eat a Reese’s.

3. I Eat the Peanut Butter First. In this moody Halloween spot, a vampire tells us how he eats his peanut butter cups. It’s exactly what you think.

2. Reese’s are Perfect. There’s something about the static image with words on the screen that appeals to us with this more modern ad. Reese’s Cups are perfect already. Why mess with them?

1. Hey! You got chocolate in my peanut butter… This spot from 1981 is perhaps my favorite of them all. Just watch.

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(Mike Mozart/Flickr)

Shaping up for the holidays

Reese’s is always doing something novel and strange with the products. At some point, Reese’s cups began appearing in different shapes for the holidays. Originally sold only in multi-packs, the holiday candy is now found in individual packs across store shelves wherever candy is sold. In my own experience, the holiday-themed candies are possessed of a different taste. Some of them—like the pumpkins—are thicker than a standard peanut butter cup and have a stronger peanut butter flavor. The Christmas trees and Easter eggs are more chocolatey. I imagine this varies from person-to-person, but I tend to agree with the assessment The Comeback’s Jay Rigdon had about the different candies in his detailed ranking of them.

Why Hershey’s decided to shape this candy into pumpkins, easter eggs, trees and hearts is not any easy answer to find, but it probably has a great deal to do with improving sales of the candy at holiday time. Never to be outdone, 2018 even saw a Reese’s advent calendar for the holiday season … not bad for a little disc of chocolate coated peanut butter. Not bad at all.

In a display of social media savoir faire, Reese’s used Twitter and the hashtag #alltreesarebeautiful as a firm marketing tool aimed at defeating the criticism of their rather blob-shaped Christmas trees, which occasionally have been compared to, as The Washington Post put it last year, “something a dog leaves under a tree.” It probably worked and endeared the brand even further to its customers. Folks tend to take their peanut butter cups quite seriously, but these ads took everything with wit and good humor, generating even further positive engagement with the brand.

six

The number of weeks Hershey’s spent promoting the Stephen Spielberg masterpiece, E.T. The Extraterrestrial in 1982. Per Andrew Smith’s Encyclopedia of Junk Food and Fast Food, Hershey’s spent $1 million promoting the film in exchange for Reese’s Pieces being featured as the lovable alien’s favorite treat. Hershey’s took a major risk on the film, because they hadn’t seen it yet in its entirety prior to making the deal. Everything worked out, however. The movie was a massive success, the candy couldn’t keep itself on the shelves and Reese’s Pieces—in danger of an unceremonious discontinuation—were spared.

Despite the fun and nostalgia of the ads, the reality is the Reese’s brand has spent the majority of its life constantly evolving. It still is. In 2003, the packaging itself was redesigned with the addition of a swirling element added to the traditional orange background, creating the iconic candy we know and love today.

Reese’s peanut butter cups spawned countless imitators, spin-off candies, cookies, cereal and even numerous recipes for homemade versions of the creamy, chocolatey treat—although why on earth someone would want to invest in the ingredients over purchasing the rather inexpensive confections is a bit of a mystery.

On the other hand, people love making other things using the peanut butter cups as a main ingredient, but that’s a story for another time.

As of 2018, brand engagement is still high for Reese’s cups and though sales may fluctuate and healthy snacks may occasionally replace junk food in our diets, there is always room for just one more Reese’s cup.

I think I’ll go have one now.

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David Buck

Your time was just wasted by David Buck

David Buck is a former radio guy/musician who researches and writes about all manner of strange and interesting music, legacy technology, Nintendo and data analysis.

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