NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Twinkies have inspired love, curiosity and criticism, not to mention a cookbook, campaign reform and plenty of urban legends in the 80 years since James A. Dewar created them.
Mr. Dewar, a Chicago-based Hostess bakery manager, had his light-bulb moment in 1930 just as the Great Depression was taking hold. Hostess parent Continental Baking Co. was looking for a new, inexpensive treat to market to cash-strapped consumers, and Mr. Dewar saw an opportunity in the company's shortcake pans that sat idle the bulk of the year thanks to a short strawberry season. He decided to experiment, injecting the cakes with banana-cream filling. Bananas, after all, were readily available year-round. On his way to St. Louis to present the idea, Mr. Dewar passed a billboard advertising Twinkle Toe Shoes, which ultimately served as the inspiration for the treat's catchy moniker.
Twinkies were priced two for a nickel and quickly began flying off store shelves. "To think, [Continental Baking] didn't know if people would like them," said Margaret Branco, one of the original "Twinkie stuffers," in an interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "We could hardly keep up with the demand. You'd think people had nothing to do but eat Twinkies. They sold like hotcakes."
Still, Mr. Dewar reportedly never received any special compensation for his hit product. He retired from Continental in 1972, having earned nicknames like Mr. Twinkie and, to family, Grandpa Twinkie. He died in 1985 at age 88.
During World War II, the popular snack cake received a makeover, swapping banana cream for vanilla cream due to banana rationing, but that didn't dent its popularity.
Over the years, Twinkies has brought the banana flavor back in limited runs. In 2005, for example, the company offered the banana variety for four weeks to celebrate the release of "King Kong." Total Twinkies sales jumped 20% during the promotion, leading the company to bring the flavor back twice more for limited runs, in 2007 and 2010.
To stay relevant with consumers, Twinkies has long tied itself to pop culture. In the 1950s, it teamed with "The Howdy Doody Show," one of the first and arguably the most popular children's show of the time. The partnership, which included Buffalo Bob Smith urging kids to ask their moms for the treats, solidified the brand as a snack and lunchbox staple.
The company has also partnered with Shrek, changing the cream filling to an "ogre green" and touting the movie on its packaging to promote "Shrek 2" in 2004.
This year, the company plans to bring back the green filling in time for the final installment of the franchise, set to open on May 21.
The limited-time offerings, whether they're banana or "ogre green," help the brand stay top of mind with consumers, said Chief Marketing Officer Rich Seban. In fact, the company is planning to introduce another new flavor this year -- strawberry, timed to the spring berry season and bringing the brand back to its roots.
In the 1970s, the company created Twinkie the Kid, a Twinkie clad in a cowboy hat, bandana and boots. The character starred in a number of commercials, with taglines ranging from "The snacks with a snack in the middle" to "You get a big delight in every bite."
Other marketing efforts have included the launch of a Twinkies cookbook to celebrate the brand's 75th anniversary. The book is stocked with recipes for things like Twinkie Sushi, Twinkie Pancakes, Chocolate Twinkie Pops and even a Twinkie Wedding Cake.
In the 1980s, a grand jury indicted George Belair, a Minneapolis city council candidate, for serving Twinkies, along with other snacks and beverages, to senior citizens groups, in violation of an 1893 law prohibiting candidates from providing food, drink or entertainment to gain votes.
The case led to the passage of the short-lived Minnesota Fair Campaign Act, popularly known as the Twinkie Law. Charges against Mr. Belair, who lost the election, were eventually dropped, saving him from a $700 fine and 90 days in jail.
Urban myths surrounding Twinkies' ability to stay fresh forever also abound. Adding fuel to that fire, Roger Bennatti, a former science teacher at George Stevens Academy in Blue Hill, Maine, grabbed headlines for what he purported was a decades-old Twinkie. He kept a Twinkie perched on his chalkboard for 30 years, a story reported by the Associated Press when he retired in 2004. For the record, the company says the snack cakes only last about 25 days.
Still there's no question that Twinkies will continue to be a part of American culture in the decades to come. The snack-cake powerhouse racked up $70 million in sales last year, excluding Walmart, according to IRI. Mr. Dewar once called Twinkies the "best darn tootin'" idea he ever had, and current execs are still singing the treats' praises.
"When consumers think cake, they think Twinkies," said Mr. Seban. "Twinkies are icons. We sell over half a billion each year."