Recently at my dinner table, I witnessed an exchange between my 82-year-old mother-in-law and my 2-year-old niece about eating Peeps.
The 82-year-old has been eating them for many years and harbors a not-so-secret love of the sugary marshmallow confections that many women her age would be more than a little embarrassed to admit. That’s probably why she always whispers “Oh, I love those,” when I buy her a box at Easter, as if I’m feeding her illicit drug habit that only the two of us know about.
The 2-year-old is only just discovering Peeps.
She bit the head off the bright green chick, stared at it quizzically as if deciding whether or not she liked this newfound treat, took another bite and then proceeded to drop the beheaded chick onto the front of her shirt, where its exposed insides, wet with toddler slobber, stuck to the front of her shirt like glue.
“Sticky,” she proclaimed, smiling broadly as she pulled the half-chewed Peep from her shirt and surveyed the damage.
What is it about Peeps?
They’re cheap, corny and cloyingly sweet. You can feel the sugar grind against your teeth when you eat one.
And yet, 97 percent of those taking a recent survey agreed that an Easter basket would not be complete without the iconic puffs of bright yellow, pink, blue, green, purple and orange shaped like chicks and bunnies.
So again, I have to wonder: What is it about Peeps?
That’s a question Ellie Deardorff answers often.
As spokeswoman for Just Born, the Bethlehem, Pa., candy company that makes Peeps, Deardorff is well versed in the answer.
For Peeps, 2013 is a landmark year. The candy is celebrating its 60th birthday, enjoying record sales and has debuted its first television commercial in more than a decade.
Of course, with sales that have increased every year, you have to wonder why they even need television advertising. Deardorff said the commercial is as much about celebrating as it is about selling. It’s really a gift for customers, who have helped to make Peeps the success that they are, she said.
As TV commercials go, it’s a sweet one. It shows two brothers waking up Easter morning and their excitement at finding Peeps in their baskets. It follows the pair throughout Easter — from spit-and-polished for church in the morning, to an egg hunt, Easter dinner, and finally brushing their teeth a night — all while the older brother is telling his younger brother, Forrest Gump-style, everything you can do with Peeps.
The commercial hits the spot when it comes to addressing the most fundamental aspect of Peeps’ success: They are an American icon.
“They bring back people’s memories of their childhoods and have great associations,” Deardorff said.
Plenty of other factors have contributed to Peeps’ success.
Just Born has worked hard to introduce Peeps for every season to keep fans interested. That’s why you can find Christmas tree Peeps as well as pumpkins and ghosts.
The combination of Peeps and chocolate, which Just Born rolled out a few years ago, also has been a huge hit. So not only can you find chocolate-dipped Peeps, and chocolate drops filled with marshmallow known as Peepsters, but also this year Just Born introduced a hollow chocolate egg that when cracked open has a Peeps chick inside.
But the commercial, in its tale of everything you can do with Peeps, hits upon an important facet of the brand’s success: There are a lot of things you can do with Peeps, even if you don’t eat them.
So if you want to put one in the microwave and watch it puff up, or drop one into a beaker of acid and watch it dissolve, or even send one to the moon, that’s OK by Just Born; in fact, the company encourages it.
“We love what our fans do. We don’t see it as abuse,” Deardorff said.
The company is thrilled when Peeps are used in science class, math class and art class. The Washington Post’s annual Peeps diorama contest has led the way in showing just how creative folks can be with Peeps. Check out this year’s Peepal Conclave featuring Peeps dressed up as the Roman Catholic cardinals about to select a new pope. It went viral for TheMonkeyCage.com (http://themonkey cage.org/2013/03/11/the-papal-conclave-peeps-edition/).
But Deardorff said there are now more than 60 contests nationwide, from art to recipes, featuring Peeps, and the company will even provide prize packages for the winners.
“We’re trying to generate interest in lots of different ways,” she said.
For the record, Deardorff recommends that you cut a slit in the package and dry them out for a day or two if you intend to play with them or use them for art.
The ongoing debate over fresh or stale is one of the most common Peeps arguments. (I personally prefer mine cured in an open package for about a week to reach the correct level of chewiness.) Chick or bunny is another.
Officially, the chick, specifically the yellow chick, is the most popular, although the bunny came out on top in one survey more than a decade ago, beating the chick by half a percentage point.
Maybe Peeps have such broad appeal because the life lessons we get from them are the same ones that any mature and successful 60-year-old has learned: Don’t take yourself too seriously, never stop growing and changing, and always keep your sense of humor.