What candy companies (maybe Willy Wonka) used grade school kids as "candy testers"? And what was that all about?
November 13, 2012 11:02 AM   Subscribe

Was my elementary school the only one that did regular "candy testing" focus groups? Is there any information out there about who and what this program was?

I went to a Catholic grade school through 8th grade, in south suburban St. Louis. I graduated in the early 90s.

I can remember at least a few occasions where we had "candy testing" in our school gym. A handful of kids in each grade would be chosen to be the candy testers, and throughout the day they would be called down, grade by grade, to participate. I was somewhat of teachers' pet and got to do it more than once. I remember that everybody knew that it was candy testing day and was excited and hoped to be picked. It was a big deal around the school.

We'd go to the gym and there would be several tables set up. They'd give us a handful of candy and we'd eat it right there. Then they'd ask us a bunch of "on a scale of 1-5" questions about it. For instance, they'd say "how likely would you be to buy this" or "how would you rate the color of the candy" and similar. I very specifically remember that this was my introduction to answer choices like "very likely, somewhat likely, neither likely nor unlikely," etc. We'd repeat the process for several different products.

I seem to remember that the candy was not in wrappers or if it was it was not commercially wrapped. And I also think that the candy was not yet released to the public (because what got me thinking of this question was a blob of orange taffy-like stuff that was THE BEST but that I never could find after I ate it that day). And it was not chocolate but instead was Willy Wonka-type stuff.

I always just assumed that this sort of thing was widespread at grade schools, but Google teaches me nothing. In talking to friends and my wife about it they think I must be imagining the whole thing. I know that Sunline Brands was based in St. Louis, and they invented SweeTarts and Sprees and Tangy Taffy and Lik-M-Aid and Tart n Tinys (several of which are now Wonka branded items under Nestle). So maybe they had something to do with it. Maybe a mom or dad in marketing there had a kid at our school and struck a deal with the principal.

So, did anyone else have a similar experience as a kid? Alternatively, does anyone know anything about "use schoolkids as candy testers" programs? I'd love to better understand what I was doing and how common it was.
posted by AgentRocket to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Tragically, we had nothing of the sort! (Manchester, CT)
posted by Glinn at 11:03 AM on November 13, 2012

Roald Dahl has a chapter on this in his memoirish book Boy, so it did happen sometime, somewhere.
posted by leesh at 11:07 AM on November 13, 2012 [6 favorites]

It sounds like normal product testing methodology. I am surprised at it being done in a school, but, hey. I think you're onto something with the fact that a candy company is headquartered there, and maybe you could just call their PR office to find out.
posted by Miko at 11:10 AM on November 13, 2012 [2 favorites]

I grew up in the suburbs of St. Louis, went to a public school, and we did NOT participate in product testing.

There was a guy in the neighborhood who worked for a candy maker and gave out the best Halloween candy - those giant Pixy Sticks. Your paragraph on SweeTarts reminded me of it, so I just googled, and sure enough, they were made by Sunline in St. Louis as well.
posted by valeries at 11:14 AM on November 13, 2012

I went to parochial school in the Chicago suburbs (1st & 2nd grade) and we DID do product testing, for Kool-Aid I believe (or some other sweet drink). We tasted from little cups, and had to color in one of five or so faces, from frowny face to happy face. This was in 1968-69.

I never heard of this happening with anybody else until now.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:24 AM on November 13, 2012

We did at least one of these market research things when I was in school during roughly the same timeframe. The product was instant oatmeal.

I went to Catholic school in Dallas, Texas.
posted by purpleclover at 11:25 AM on November 13, 2012

My mum actually runs these trials professionally, tragically we've never had candy to test (we had bacon though!), when I was a kid the biggest trial she did on children was flavors of children's medicine :(.
It was probably a parent of someone at your school (or possibly an ex-pupil) whose job it was to run user trials. Its a pretty standard process that most commercial products go through before they go into production. I'm not surprised that it was done in a school - where else could you go for a large number of children testers? If the target market is children then it needs to be tested on children.
posted by missmagenta at 11:28 AM on November 13, 2012

I went to a small private school in the southeastern US. We didn't have candy testing, but I do vaguely recall doing some product-testing type things in the early 90s.

One I remember pretty clearly was some exercise stick/toy thing (neon colored, about a yard long, rubber tipped on both ends, and kind of sqishy) that had a name like zooba or wooba or something. People came and talked to us about it, demonstrated how to use it, and then let us loose in groups with it to watch us play. It was pretty stupid.

The school had definitely stopped doing things like that by the late 90s.
posted by phunniemee at 12:07 PM on November 13, 2012

In the 70s, someone at school did this, but I don't think it was school-wide. We also tested some really cool new toys, as well.
posted by xingcat at 12:11 PM on November 13, 2012

We had yogurt testing at my elementary school once, in the mid-80s. Public school, Massachusetts.
posted by mskyle at 12:39 PM on November 13, 2012

I did this once when I was a kid, but it was in a mall for a woman who obviously worked for Hershey's.
posted by Rinoia at 12:40 PM on November 13, 2012

I went to a Catholic school in the 70's but it was through our school's Girl Scout troup that we did the same thing but it was with snack foods (chips, corn chips etc). We did it as a fundraiser because the company paid a certain amount per person to participate. It was an easy way to make money and we thought we were so cool to get to try new products!
posted by maxg94 at 12:53 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

These tests aren't always manufacturer taste tests for candy or whatnot. They can sometimes just be psychology tests. For example, there was a nice experiment I read about in a marketing journal a few years back about a taste test on orange juices. The researchers told the kids that some of the (identical) juices were healthier. These "healthier" juices fared badly in taste tests. But obviously the kids were told a different story about what the test was testing for.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:10 PM on November 13, 2012 [1 favorite]

Sure, my kids are at a private school & they tested a new Red Logo company's breakfast cracker thing. The kids hated it but I keep a box in the house for urgent parent breakfast deals.
posted by tilde at 3:19 PM on November 13, 2012

Dynamite magazine had kids rate Jelly Bellies sometime in the 70s.I don't remember if they all went to the same school.
posted by brujita at 4:46 PM on November 13, 2012

Yep, I've done a few product tests, never candy though. Granola bars at school, potato chips at church as a child, maybe something else I'm not remembering. Super easy fundraiser for a school or organization!
posted by missriss89 at 8:28 PM on November 13, 2012

In suburbia Vancouver BC mid 90s, these trials were held at local malls. We'd spread the word of what would disqualify you or what keyword they needed most because there were incentives like a whole bunch of free pop.
posted by porpoise at 11:19 PM on November 13, 2012

My dad worked in marketing for a grocery store, and I got to product test several candy products before they hit the widespread market (Sour Patch Kids anyone?). Maybe a parent at your school was doing something similar? I know that my dad was always trying to get feedback on which new products to carry.
posted by Happydaz at 12:57 AM on November 14, 2012

We did a candy trial in my elementary school only once, if memory serves. It was likely '88 or '89, in southeastern Iowa. The candy in question was the commercially packaged Brach's flavored licorice, in odd, un-licoricey flavors (orange, lemon, chocolate --- revolutionary to a kid at the time.) These were the small licorice candies, two side-by-side pieces per small pack, maybe 2 inches long, the kind you'd get in the Brach's bulk bin.
posted by scwebd at 10:51 AM on November 14, 2012

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