Bubble burst: The rise and fall of chewing gum

From Sunday Morning, 4:41 pm on 15 August 2021

Are we seeing the last mastication's of chewing gum?

There's still a large variety of it on display in diaries and supermarkets, but The Economist says it's a habit in decline, and sales fell by 14 percent worldwide last year.

London-based journalist Will Coldwell wrote the piece, and talked to Jim Mora about the history of gum, and why it's not been the best of times for the habit's popularity and image.

The pandemic has certainly not helped.

"People have been stuck at home not going out much, and faces have literally been covered with masks, so a lot of the situations that usually called for some gum have kind of evaporated," he says.

Pop art woman portrait wearing purple wig. Blow a blue bubble chewing gum. Olive background.

Photo: 123rf

"People have always chewed gum or chewed something. People have lots of reasons for doing it, it freshens your breath, it helps you concentrate, it passes time.

"It's an activity more than a food."

He says the ancient Greeks munched on bark and the Mayans and Aztecs chewed chicle, a resin from the Mexican sapodilla tree."

But chewing gum was already falling out of favour long before the pandemic, he says.

"One big thing was people turned against sugar in the 1990s, and gum fought back with sugar-free gums which became super popular."

There are theories that smart phones have caused disruption because they provide an alternative distraction, particularly at supermarket checkouts where gum is merchandised.

"Gum's the kind of thing that people grab for as they're paying for their groceries, and now instead of absent-mindedly looking at what other things someone could buy they stare at their phone instead," Coldwell says.

"The big one really is that people have become much more conscious of plastic, and are really turned off by plastic products, and gum is basically made out of it - at least the modern mainstream mass-produced chewing gum."

Gum has stopped signifying as a counter-culture symbol of rebellion and attitude.

"When gum took off it was Hollywood stars and American GIs, symbols of American culture.

"Throughout the 50s and 60s onwards gum became associated with youthful angst, particularly the 70s, 80s and 90s teen movies are full of kids popping gum to convey their disdain for authority."

Coldwell says it's reported that 100,000 pieces of gum were chewed by the cast of the movie Grease while the movie was filmed.

Today's representations of rebellion have a new set of tropes and associations, and chewing gum doesn't align so easily with them.  

"You're seeing ... caring about things like the environment, and gum isn't really synonymous with that, so for younger people it maybe doesn't chime in quite the same way as it used to when literally not caring was cool.

"It's an interesting product in that it's just lacking in substance in so many ways, yet so many meanings and cultural associations have become attached to it over the years."

A "new wave" of environmentally friendly plastic-free chewing gums have been on offer since the millennium.

"Curiously they are actually made out of the natural resin that gum originally was made of, so it's kind of gone full circle in a way," Coldwell says.

He's curious to know if it'll catch on.