The Rise and Fall of Jell-O

We’re all familiar with the brightly colored boxes and cups that proclaim the Jell-o brand, but when’s the last time you actually made the wiggly, sugary dessert? It’s probably been a while. You’re not the only one. Sales have plummeted for the number one seller of the gelatin-based food product. In fact, in the last decade, sales have gone down by 371 million dollars! Believe it or not, Jell-o was once served to royalty. So, how did it become a cheap, boxed treat that has seen better days? Keep reading to find out!

Royal Beginnings

Before the brand-name Jell-o, gelatin was served in the middle ages. It was made of collagen, which called for melting and filtering of pigs’ ears and feet. It became a status symbol because you needed a lot of meat to get enough bones to boil. Plus, you needed a lot of equipment to heat, store, and cool the gelatin, not to mention a whole staff of people to help in the process.

The decadent, jiggly dish was served to Eurpean royalty, and eventually made its way to America, but it didn’t maintain the same status symbol, especially after people found an easier way to produce it.

Introducing: Boxed Jell-O

Instant Jell-O was invented in Le Roy, New York by Pearle Wait. At the time, he was struggling to come up with a cough syrup recipe, however, some experiments with instant gelatin and condensed fruit syrups produced a much sweeter and more visually appealing version of the otherwise bland gelatin that was available.

The small-town inventor didn’t know how to properly market his new product, so he ended up selling the patent in the late 1800s for $450, which is equivalent to $14,000 today. Who was the fortuitous buyer? Frank Woodward, who worked for Genesee Pure Food Company. Three short years later, the newly branded and distributed Jell-O product brought in over $250,000 worth of sales, which is about $7.4 million today.

Rise In Popularity

The cornerstone of Jell-O’s success was a series of well-placed ads, as well as a cookbook with a variety of different ways to serve the product. Thus, the demand for Jell-O rose, as well as the profit margins. The company even went so far as to commission artwork from none other than Norman Rockwell. If there’s one way to secure a place in quaint, Americana history, it’s to memorialize something in a Norman Rockwell, painting, am I right?

Another boom in brand-recognition was when the Genesee Pure Food Company changed its name to the Jell-O company. At the very least, it’s less of a mouthful! Several years after that, the Jell-O company was absorbed into a much bigger food company that you might recognize… General Food Corporation.

Survival Of The Fittest

During the Great Depression, people were strapped for cash, food, shelter, and pretty much everything else. It truly was a time of survival of the fittest, and that went for business as well. General Food Corporation kept the spirit of Jell-O alive through producing cookbooks with ideas on how to incorporate Jell-O into meals to stretch the food and make it last longer. Jell-O was marketed as an affordable and flexible meal additive.

This lucrative ad campaign easily made the transition into a fun and creative way to serve colorful meals even with wartime rations. The ads and recipes also played up the “quick and easy” angle, which many women were looking for after spending all day working in the factories.

Post-War Success… And The End Of An Era

After WWII, Jell-O became a staple at dinner parties. We’re all familiar with these less-than-appetizing, savory versions of the gelatin product. Things like shrimp Jell-O, tomato soup gelatin molds, and lime Jell-O with tuna. Looking back on some of the retro Jell-O recipes now makes us cringe!

As time went on, however, the things that once boosted the popularity of Jell-O began to work against it. The affordability that made the product popular during the Great Depression gave it an air of cheapness in the prosperous years that followed the war. Plus, the association with wartime rations made Jell-O less appealing to consumers as the years passed.

The Beginning Of The End

By the 1970s, Jell-O sales were in such decline, the company threw everything it had into giving the gelatin product a facelift. They hired actor and comedian, Bill Cosby, to endorse Jell-O, in what was one of the longest-standing celebrity endorsement deals, lasting almost 30 years!

While Jell-O sales did see a slight uptick thanks to the newly acquired celebrity endorsement, numbers quickly plummeted when the brand released the pre-packaged cups. It was seen as a child’s snack or something you’d find in a cafeteria or a hospital. Either way, Jell-O certainly wasn’t seen as a filling meal for a family. Here’s where things get really interesting…

Tabacco conglomerate, Philip Morris, bought General Foods in 1985 and merged it with Kraft Inc. When low-fat and sugar-free diet trends swept the nation, Jell-O tried to keep up by coming up with fat-free versions. However, in order to make their product still taste good without all the added fats and sugars, the company had to mix in a bunch of fillers and chemical additives. This, in turn, gave Jell-O a bad name for putting bad things in their instant gelatin mix.

More Bad News

After a series of unsuccessful ad campaigns that played up the sugar-free products for the new Atkins craze, and then the wholesome family angle, Jell-O was in a bind. While it survived the Great Depression, the product didn’t have the same sales boost during the Great Recession of the late 2000s.

Fast-forward ten years, and Jell-O sales are lower than ever. This is partially due to the increased awareness of “diet” foods, and how even if a product is fat-free or sugar-free, that doen’t necessarily make it healthy. Add in the factor that more and more consumers are looking for simple, all-natural foods without an unrecognizable, unpronounceable ingredient list, and it’s easy to see why sales continue to decline.

Get more history on the rise and fall of Jell-O in the video below!

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