Eat More, They’re Healthy

The ’90s defining treat might have been SnackWell’s, a low-fat cookie brand that sold itself as healthy, but really just exposed public health policy failures.

Hey all, Ernie here with a piece from Karen Corday, who last appeared in the newsletter about a year ago to talk Sniglets. This time, she’s back with another topic that starts with the letter S: SnackWell’s. She’s helpfully filling out our “S” section one step at a time!

Today in Tedium: Bad taste was everywhere in the U.S. throughout the early ’90s. Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture—and Do The Right Thing wasn’t even nominated. America’s Funniest Home Videos convinced everyone to confuse their babies and kick their uncles in their crotches in the name of “comedy.” Bryan Adams sang a very bland, meandering love song for a very bland, meandering Robin Hood movie. To top it all off, people not only accepted that cookies were now going to be dry, waxy discs of mediocrity, they demanded more of said discs than Nabisco could provide and convinced themselves that “low fat” equaled “good”. To this day, if you ask someone who was a child in the early 90’s if they remember SnackWell cookies, a few will actually rush to correct you and add the apostrophe-s—SnackWell’s. Their ubiquitous, award-winning advertising worked THAT well. Join me now as I investigate why SnackWell’s had such a hold on snackers of the early 1990s and how it all went wrong. — Karen @ Tedium

Editor’s note: Karen did a lot of library digging for this one, so in lieu of links, you’ll find publication references in some spots. Just a heads-up!

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The SnackWell’s “Cookie Guy.” (YouTube screenshot)

How a Senate report started a long-running low-fat craze

Nabisco didn’t invent fat-free snacking; indeed, a 1992 article from the U.S. News & World Report pointed out that “supermarket shelves are sagging with low-fat cookies” when introducing the four new cookie flavors coming out under the name of SnackWell’s.

Not only did SnackWell’s have “less than a gram of fiber per ounce,” informal taste tests were unpromising, with testers complaining SnackWell’s were “dry and hard,” with 75% of the group preferring Chips Ahoy! (Margaret Mannix and Joanne Silburner, “The skinny on low-fat cookies,” U.S. News & World Report. Vol. 113, Issue 7, August 17, 1992: 63)

Advertising Age also heralded the coming of Nabisco’s low-fat line, pointing out that “Nabisco is trying to fill a consumer need without drawing attention to fat levels in its existing cookies and crackers” and that “Company materials say polls show the fat content of foods is ‘America’s No. 1 health concern.’” (Judann Dagnoli, “Nabisco plans first line of no-fat snacks,” Advertising Age, March 16, 1992: 4.)

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The original food pyramid.

The low-fat craze stemmed from a 1977 report from the Senate’s Select Committee on Nutrition and Human Needs called Dietary Goals for the United States, “which promoted increased carbohydrate and reduced fat consumption along with less sugar and salt.” A series of additional government reports recommending a low-fat diet followed despite “critics, both scientific and industrial, call[ing] the diet-heart hypothesis unproved and the dietary recommendations disputable.” Finally, “in 1992, after much controversy and negotiation, the USDA released its first and long-awaited food pyramid that lent full support to the ideology of low fat. Wide press coverage gave the pyramid much publicity, and it quickly became an icon.”

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(Malingering/Flickr)

The food industry stopped protesting the government’s findings as it became clear that the public demand for low-fat food provided an opportunity for profit. SnackWell’s introduction in 1992 not only coincided perfectly with the release of the iconic food pyramid, it differed from other low-fat options by providing flavors previously associated with their higher-fat counterparts. “Most of the [low fat] products up until that point were fruit-based,” explained Sharon Rothstein, Nabisco’s Director of New Business to Food & Beverage Marketing in 1993. “We saw that our opportunity was to deliver mainstream low-fat products like chocolate cookies and cheese crackers.” (Al Urbanski, “Project Zero: The Making of SnackWell’s,” Food & Beverage Marketing, 12, no.6 (June 1993): 22-24.)

A star was born.

Within its first five months on shelves, SnackWell’s brought in $57 million in sales, putting it on the Top 10 list of best-selling cookies and crackers. Its first full year of sales in 1993 brought in $150 million, and after three years, consumers had bought $500 million worth of SnackWell’s, with $161 million spent on devil’s food cake cookies alone. “Consider this,” raved a press release from August of 1995. “If SnackWell’s were a stand-alone company, it would be the third-largest biscuit company behind Nabisco and Keebler.” (The SnackWell’s 500: SnackWell’s Hits $500 Million In Just Three Years. PR Newswire: August 30, 1995.)

Devil’s Food Cookie Cakes sold out everywhere; Nabisco began providing their own SOLD OUT signs to grocery stores in the signature SnackWell’s green hue and used the hype resulting from consumers’ disappointment in the cookie’s scarcity to revel in its success with the introduction of its Cookie Man ads.

Nabisco responded to SnackWell’s nationwide Devil’s Food Cookie Cakes shortage with a series of commercials featuring a nebbish, harried employee stalked by a coven of three grinning, chuckling, slightly matronly women who jovially but slightly threateningly holler “Hey, Cookie Man!” and demand he personally provide them with their beloved SnackWell’s as they are not available in stores. They wait for him outside the SnackWell’s home office. They pop up in his back seat, leering and wild-eyed in the rearview mirror. They stalk his coworker’s delivery truck down the highway, merrily waving from a convertible, stopping to plunder the truck when sudden engine trouble slows it down. They interrupt a sleazy businessman trying to pay off Cookie Man in the backseat of a limousine so he can have his own supply without having to outsmart the Unholy Three. The leader of the bunch eventually goes so far as to impersonate Cookie Man’s mother, suddenly pulling off a mask of his mom’s face to grin eerily at Cookie Man, holding out her arms and calling him “Son!” as he passes out in terror.

Cookie Man’s hapless foibles went on for 23 episodes between 1993 and 1997; the entire 13 minute long saga is available on YouTube thanks to a thoughtful user named, yes, “cookiemanlives”! (Could this be the ACTUAL Cookieman?! Cookiemanlives, get in touch!)

Unlike other cookie commercials, SnackWell’s emphasis was entirely on adults as consumers. During the entire Cookie Man narrative, a child appears just once, and his real purpose is to reveal that his mother is the by then well-known leader of the SnackWell’s fan brigade. Nabisco purposefully made the SnackWell’s packages hold fewer cookies than the average cookie package in order to keep the cost per package under $1.99, but explaining the smaller size as appropriate for its adult consumers:

“It’s a smaller package size, but it’s for a different target-men and women 35 and over,” says Rothstein. “It’s not like a 20-0unce package of Oreos that’s going to be eaten by the whole family. We made a strategic decision early on to give SnackWell’s a very attractive price point.” (Urbanski, 23)

Perhaps those of us who ate SnackWell’s as children as a last resort because there were no other cookies in the house deserve to remember them unhappily. They weren’t meant for us in the first place.

Furthermore, Nabisco was so confident in SnackWell’s and their dominance within the snacking market that they used the ads to point out its most popular product’s lack of availability. Their tagline throughout the Cookie Man years was “Can we ever make enough?”, implying that SnackWell’s may well run out at any given moment and if you want them, you’d better join the wild mob making Cookie Man’s life miserable. Cookie Man is so overwhelmed by his stalkers that at one point he desperately cries out “There’s other reduced fat cookies besides SnackWell’s!” as the fans chase him down a supermarket aisle, grinning ferociously behind their shopping carts. Later, he warily watches through binoculars as a different brand of devil’s food cookies premiers at a grocery store, hoping for this rival’s success so “those ladies will leave [him] alone”--surprise, they prefer SnackWell’s and descend upon his car in a frenzy.

The commercial introducing SnackWell’s cereal bars is unique not only in introducing a child as a SnackWell’s consumer for the first time, but in showing the other competing cereal bars by their real names in the background. It’s rare to see an advertisement that actually includes its product’s competitor in said ad, but that’s the kind of Big Dessert Energy Nabisco was slinging around during its SnackWell’s heyday.

To imply that they are so confident in their wares that their mascot can openly wish for a competitor’s devil food cookies to become more popular than SnackWell’s so he can get a moment’s peace is an extremely bold move, a move that won Nabisco the 1994 Golden Effie, the American Marketing Association’s highest honor. (“FCB/Leber Katz and Snackwell’s win Grand Effie,” Marketing News 29, no.15, July 17, 1995: 2.)

It couldn’t last.

“One reason I’ve suggested is [what’s] called the SnackWell’s Phenomenon: By giving a free pass to good nutrients, people go there and eat a lot more food. If one SnackWell’s is okay because it’s low-fat, a whole box is probably better.”

— Author Michael Pollan, helping to popularize a phenomenon called the SnackWell effect during a 2008 lecture at Bates College. With this quote, Pollan, an advocate for good nutrition, helped define one of the biggest problems with low-fat marketing—ultimately, if it sounds healthier, you eat more.

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Why SnackWell’s lost its place in the snack aisle

In 1996, SnackWell’s wild ride finally slowed down. By October 7th of that year, despite being the seventh best-selling grocery item at a projected $810 million—right behind Diet Coke and right in front of Marlboro Lights—their cookie sales had fallen by 27%, cracker sales by 16%. (Bruce Horovitz, “The Skinny on SnackWell’s: Munchy Maker Hungers For Taste of Low-Cal Success,” USA Today, December 17, 1996, 1-6.)

The number of low-fat and fat-free products had increased threefold since 1992, giving SnackWell’s the type of competition Cookieman had been desperately pleading for all along. Nabisco attempted to compete by actually cutting calories as well as fat.

“We are determined, dedicated and fixated on cutting the calories,” says James Postl, the rarely interviewed president of Nabisco Biscuit Co. His goal: to reduce the calories in SnackWell’s cookies and crackers 33% to 55% within a year. (Horovitz, 2)

This never happened. The test marketing of a lower calorie SnackWell’s cookie “bombed”. Whole Foods stopped carrying SnackWell’s altogether, claiming they did not “meet their quality standards”. Late 1996 also brought the first instance I found within my research that alluded to the later-infamous “SnackWell effect,” a concept generally credited to Pollan.

This had apparently been a topic of discussion even before SnackWell’s began its downward spiral. An episode of Seinfeld, “The Postponement”, which first aired on September 28, 1995, featured a rabbi offering Elaine SnackWell’s before a counseling session, noting they are “very popular, although I think sometimes with these so-called fat free cookies, people may overindulge forgetting they are high in calories.”

Sure enough, in the midst of the low-fat craze, obesity levels in the United States climbed dramatically and have continued to do so. “What If It’s All Been a Big Fat Lie?” asked the New York Times Magazine in 2002, exploring the then-recent revival of the high fat, low carbohydrate Atkins diet and the fact that the advice to eat as little fat as possible had been overly simplistic and counterproductive:

We ate more fat-free carbohydrates, which, in turn, made us hungrier and then heavier. Put simply, if the alternative hypothesis is right, then a low-fat diet is not by definition a healthy diet. In practice, such a diet cannot help being high in carbohydrates, and that can lead to obesity, and perhaps even heart disease.

In a 2003 interview with PBS’s Frontline program, nutritionist Marion Nestle discussed this article and the outcomes of the governmental guidelines on reducing fat consumption:

The idea was to reduce saturated fat, but the assumption was that it was too complicated to explain all that, and that if people just reduced their fat content, the fat content of their diet, they would be improving it. What nobody realized--or at least I certainly could never have guessed--was that the food industry would substitute vegetable fats for animal fats in such a profound way, and would also substitute sugars for fats, and keep the calorie content of the products exactly the same. The best example is the Snackwell phenomenon. Snackwell cookies were advertised as no-fat cookies, but they had almost the same number of calories. And in fact if you go to the store today and look at Oreo cookies, they have a reduced-fat Oreo cookie that has, I think, six calories less than the regular Oreo cookie. It’s lower in fat but it’s higher in carbohydrates.

Ironically, all that chatter about snacking well … well, it didn’t work.

The slow dismantling of SnackWell’s reason for being wasn’t necessarily a fatal blow—they’re still sold today—but the brand never recovered.

That’s despite attempts to remain relevant, one of which, surprisingly, included adding fat. That didn’t work so well, according to a 1999 Consumer Reports review. (”Richer but no better,” Consumer Reports 64, no. 2, February 1999: 44.)

“Such tweaking didn’t do much for the taste, according to our trained tasters,” the magazine write adding, “Hoopla aside, the Devil’s Food Cookie Cakes cookie is still mediocre—soft and slightly dry with a thin, marshmallowlike layer and a slightly waxy, brown (chocolate, we think) shell.”

The company even paired up with nonprofit organization, Girls Inc., to offer “mother daughter workshops” and a “promotion offering a mother/daughter photo journal with the purchase of SnackWell’s products.”

A last-ditch 2000 advertising campaign attempted to re-position SnackWell’s as an indulgent treat for “bad girls” with an ad literally featuring the Donna Summer song “Bad Girls” and encouraging snackers to “hang up on your sister...ignore the dust bunnies...wear a push-up bra to work...eat SnackWell’s cookies” with nary a mention of fat, health, or nutrition.

“Being bad was never so good,” claimed the ad, but of course everyone knew that being “good” and choosing to eat low-fat cookies hadn’t been that great—and who would waste their “bad” snacking on SnackWell’s when good old Oreos were right there?

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The current SnackWell’s packaging.

Nabisco eventually agreed and decided to take their Oreos and move on. Mondelez International, who acquired Nabisco in 2012, sold SnackWell’s to Back To Nature in 2014. Back To Nature revamped the recipe with “simple, better for you ingredients that help you Live Well, Snack Well.” Apparently they don’t taste the same, although I can’t see how that’s a bad thing.

Speaking of things that don’t taste the same, that brings us to what SnackWell’s Cookie Man has been up to lately. The actor behind the ads, birth name Perri Anzilotti, is still a cookie man, but one with presumably slightly calmer, mellower consumers: “I’ve morphed into finding two passions in my life: weed and food.”

If you’re in the greater Los Angeles area, stop by your local dispensary for some Perrywinkles, including traditional weed brownies and cookies as well as savory options such as fish crackers (Fish Called Juana) and pretzel bites (Scoobie Dewbie Pretzel Nuggets)! “These edibles give patients an alternative … to the sugar so commonly found in edible cannabis,” L.A. Weekly said of Anzilotti’s product. Cookie Man still cares about our health, folks!

As for the cookies that gave Cookie Man his big break, maybe ’90s nostalgia will snag me yet, and by this time next year I’ll be tucking into some Devil’s Food Cookie Cakes as Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves streams before me. Being bad was never so good.

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Karen Corday

Your time was just wasted by Karen Corday

Karen Corday writes about feelings, songs, movies, relationships, memories, old things, karaoke, and books. She lives in Northampton, MA.

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