Is Pez Trying to Sugarcoat American History?

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The candy company says a series of presidential memorabilia is meant to teach kids about the past, but critics say it's waistline-expanding kitsch.

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When The Washington Times called Barack Obama's administration "the Pez-dispenser presidency" in a December editorial, the newspaper wasn't commenting on his sweet disposition. The Times mocked Obama for not coming up with a memorable catch phrase like FDR's "Day of Infamy," or Reagan's "Tear Down This Wall," suggesting that he continuously spits out forgettable speeches as if they were identical candies.

Italian pop artist Mauro Perucchetti wasn't being complimentary either with his human-sized Obama Pez dispenser installation, "Feeding the 5000," which refers to Jesus' feat of nourishing a large crowd with only five loaves of bread and two fish. Apparently, the sculptor feels that Obama turned out to be a superficial and overhyped version of what he expected.

But soon Obama won't be alone. All 43 American presidents are about to become Pez Dispenser Presidents. Over the next four years, the novelty company is targeting the educational market by issuing the "Pezidents" in chronological order in batches of five, encouraging teachers to create mini-museums in their classrooms and use the toys as prizes. George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and James Monroe are already available at Wal-Mart next to Green Lantern and SpongeBob. The next round is due out in November, a few days before Mitt Romney learns if he is Pez-worthy.

The company is no stranger to seizing the historical moment to promote a product. During a June 1961 summit with Nikita Khrushchev in Vienna, where Pez is headquartered, President John F. Kennedy was presented with a custom satin-lined case with gift dispensers. A press release boasted that the company gave a Democratic donkey to JFK, a classy golden stem for Jackie and Bozo the Clown for daughter Caroline. A document at the JFK Presidential Library indicates that the Secret Service instructed the White House to return the gift, but does not indicate the reason why. According to spokeswoman Rachel Day Flor, the library archives contain no further information about the fate of the confiscated dispensers.

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In 1976, a series of Bicentennial dispensers paid homage to Betsy Ross, Uncle Sam, and the Revolutionary War Minutemen. After the 9/11 terror attacks, it introduced an "Emergency Heroes" series of firefighters, police officers, rescue workers, and soldiers -- a set that fit in perfectly with the popularity of American flag "These Colors Don't Run" t-shirts at the time.

Unofficially, there have been numerous Pez knockoffs and spoofs related to the White House race. Herobuilders, a toy company best known for its political action figures, introduced candy dispensers of Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton when they were their parties' early frontrunners in 2008. Both were pulled off the market after Pez threatened to sue.

The Topps Company, which produces satirical "Wacky Packages" stickers spoofing consumer brands, paid tribute to "Prez" in 1992. The sticker shows the plastic head of President George H.W. Bush vomiting his dreaded broccoli, a food he became as famous for hating as much as Ronald Reagan did for craving jelly beans. (It's not just Pez that can't resist presidential politics. At their California factory, Jelly Belly displays a Reagan mosaic made from their product, in addition to candy portraits of other historical figures.)

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Today, Pez CEO Joe Vittoria is choosing not to tear a page out of his company's old PR playbook and time his marketing to current events. "We probably could get a lot of press by sending a set of the Pez presidents to the White House," he says. "But then people would ask where the Barack Obama dispenser is. He's going to have to wait his turn just like everyone else."

Pez currently enjoys one of the most obsessive subcultures in the collectibles market, inspiring both Pez-flavored lip balm and the PR myth that their groupies created the need for eBay. Yet, their numbers are surprisingly low - certainly not rivaling the economic clout of millions of elementary school students.

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Vittoria says superfans or "Pezheads" represent less than one-tenth of one percent of annual revenues. The company says it sells 150 million dispensers a year and estimates there are about 20,000 serious die-hard collectors. Not expecting Millard Fillmore and Herbert Hoover to outsell Buzz Lightyear and Hello Kitty, Pez is keeping production at a modest 150,000 heads per president. It is not unusual for each of their licensed characters to populate in the 3-4 million range.

But could the presidential dispensers find a new niche market among history buffs? Richard Nixon fans still have a few years to wait for a Watergate dispenser, but biographer Don Fulsom, author of Nixon's Darkest Secrets: The Inside Story of America's Most Troubled President, is looking forward to it.

"Anything that will send kids to history books to find out about out one of our most darkly fascinating presidents is an excellent idea," he says. "I used to have Nixon masks, candles, puppets, a Nixon punching bag, Nixon watches -- including one where the eyes shifted back and forth with each tick -- and many other great pieces of Nixon memorabilia. But I sold them about 20 years ago for some silly reason. I wish I had them back. To go along with the Pez."

Not everyone in academia is smitten, however. "Although I'm a Madison biographer, I'm not a Madison idolator. I don't have any Madison kitsch in my home," says Kevin R. C. Gutzman, author of James Madison and the Making of America.

"I think it's unrepublican to commemorate every president, as if they were deceased Roman politicians who had been divinized by the Senate."

"I think it's unrepublican to commemorate every president, as if they were deceased Roman politicians who had been divinized by the Senate," he says. "A few of them deserve to be remembered, for one reason or another, as exemplary or as cautionary. Most don't. President worship is not a positive development. It has led to serious distortions in our constitutional system."

It's easy to scoff at the "Pez Education Series" branding and its Pollyannish objective of making history books more relatable to children. Should altruism be listed in the ingredients before or after the sugar, corn syrup and artificial colors?

"Ready for students to research the presidents?" the Pez For Educators web page asks. "Place several sets of Pez Presidential Dispensers in a bag. Invite students to reach in and choose one. Then have each student create a report for the president he or she selected. Students will enjoy snacking on their Pez candies as they write their reports!"

Even if there were a Michelle Obama Pez dispenser -- and currently there are no plans to issue First Lady dispensers -- the famous promoter of healthy eating likely wouldn't approve of that suggestion.

Neither does Dave Wright, a fourth-grade teacher in Amherst, N.H., where school policy forbids "using foods or beverages as rewards for academic performance or good behavior," and "withhold[ing] food or beverages as a punishment." School districts across the United States have banned bake sales and cupcakes at classroom birthday parties in response to rising childhood obesity rates.

"This is a great concept with an inappropriate delivery system," says Wright. "It is definitely refreshing to see an effort made towards educating children about our history in a way that is engaging, motivating, and more importantly, not always connected to some computer game."

But, he adds, it isn't really much better to use candy as an incentive.

"Teachers are certainly free to take away the candy and just give out the dispensers," counters Vittoria. "But I don't want to say don't eat our candy because in reasonable quantities, it can be part of a good diet. There really is no portion control in this country."

Indeed, at 35 calories a pack, the Pez CEO says you'll have to search for another reason why so many of us look like "Big Bill" Taft, history's fattest president.

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Darren Garnick is an Emmy-nominated documentary producer and journalist based in New Hampshire. He is currently writing  Why Can't I Be President?, a comic book about history's "Oval Office Underdogs," and blogs about politics and pop culture at CultureSchlock.com.

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