In the 1970s, there was an awful lot of spooky things in pop culture, and in particular aimed at children. On the telly, Doctor Who was enjoying some of its most frightening eras, while serials such as Children of the Stones and Shadows were delivering weird chills on a regular basis. There were creepy comics such as Monster Fun and Shiver & Shake and creepy board games such as Haunted House and Ghost Train. And this trend for the ghoulish and gothic even extended to snack food - yes, even crisps went creepy! For this was the era of Horror Bags - a range of snacks that went bump in the night!
Now one of the oldest makers of crunchy delights, was Smiths Crisps, established by Frank Smith and Jim Viney in a garage in Cricklewood not long after the First World War. Early on, Smith bought out Viney's shares in the business, and in the 1930s had even established itself in Australia too. Now their stock-in trade was crisps (that means chips to most of you outside the UK) and other crunchy snacks. Now for decades the crisp market was largely dominated by different companies jockeying for position by releasing, and indeed in some cases inflicting, allegedly exciting new flavours on an unsuspecting public. However despite short-lived flavours such as tomato ketchup, Bovril or even hedgehog (yes, that did happen) being unleashed you couldn't really beat the old favourites such as ready salted, salt and vinegar, and cheese and onion. But in the 1970s, crisp making technology entered an exciting new era when machines were devised that could mould pulped potato and maize into any shape you desired.
And hence we had a new wave of savoury snacks that made the traditional vaguely round and crinkled crisp look rather boring! There were now crisps in the shapes of hoops, squares, balls and tubes, all of which were happily scoffed by a greedy public. And more exotic shapes were to follow - crisps shaped like tanks, spaceships and even zodiac signs! Now to be honest, such high concept snacks only really looked like a child's crayon drawing of the object they were meant to resemble, but at the time we didn't really care. For the novelty of the very concept of munching on an edible tank, for a time at least, outgunned the deficiency of the often lumpy shapes formed by the moulding and frying process. And hence, once that novelty was exhausted, the brand often quietly disappeared...
However if you could match an appealing marketing angle to a decent snack shape, you could perhaps create a classic snack. Now Smiths had indeed messed about with a variety of novelty shaped snacks before they struck gold. Possibly noting the rip-roaring success of the Dracula themed lolly produced Lyons Maids, in 1975 they made a bid to bring edible horror to the crisp market. Now in the lesser hands, this concept of going monster could well have fizzled out like so many other novelty shaped snacks. However Smiths were thinking not only big but clever too. To begin with, they picked concepts that could be turned into shapes that would not end up an abstract blob after frying, and actually still look like what they were supposed too. Secondly they had the smart idea of not just doing one new brand but building an entire range. And indeed, that brand would would go on to be become a legend!
Launching in late 1974, Smiths unleashed Horror Bags upon the world. Featuring a comedy vampire as their mascot, Horror Bags came initially in two delightfully ghoulish flavours, and - now pay attention for this was the really clever bit - each flavour came in a different macabre shape! Firstly there were Fangs, which were as I'm sure you have all guessed, maize moulded into the shape of vampiric teeth and flavoured cheese and onion. And the real genius of this design was that you could pop these crisps into your gob just like the plastic fangs you got from joke shops - yes, a snack AND a vampire dress-up prop too! But if cheese and onion wasn't your thing, there were Bones! These snacks really did look like little bones in a bag and provided spooky salt and vinegar flavoured fun, although sadly you could not assemble your own snack-sized skeleton from them.
Horror Bags were an instant success, and so Smiths expanded the range. Soon Fangs and Bones were joined by Ribs ("Vampire Vinegar Flavour") and Claws (bacon flavour). And in 1978, Bats flapped into the Horror Bags family, which were advertised as being "batburger" flavour, which I recall tasted suspiciously beefy.
But not everyone was happy. In typically hysterical style, tabloid newspapers were soon trying to whip up a storm of controversy over these already much-loved crisps, claiming it was a disgrace that what they termed "X certificate" snacks were being sold to children. (The X certificate was the film classification for movies suitable only for 18 year olds and over, and hence the usual certificate horror movies got). In true gutter journalism fashion, they even managed to find an alleged expert to back up their manufactured outrage. They reported that a Dr James Willis, a psychiatric consultant at Guy's Hospital, had said that "using unpleasant stimuli as a selling line could disturb a child in the same way that a vulnerable youngster can be disturbed by early exposure to sexual things". Of course, whether the good Dr Willis had really taken a strong stand against Horror Bags or had been merely asked a vague but leading hypothetical question in order to produce a quote for a story in a newspaper with only the vaguest associations with actual news, or indeed the truth, I will leave for you to decide.
Thankfully however this hate campaign against Horror Bags didn't really gain much traction. Most parents thought that the idea that crisps, even spooky shaped ones, could be harmful was frankly a load of old bollocks. Smiths themselves were a tad more diplomatic, issuing a statement that basically stated the real truth, which was "it's good for children to be on fun terms with things that frighten them". The tabloids dropped the matter swiftly and Horror Bags made a turnover of £4 million quid that year. Fangs, I mean, thanks for the free advertising suckers!
Of course there was plenty of proper advertising from Smiths themselves. There was a range of Tv ads promoting these scary snacks, with the Horror Bags vampire - who was actually meant to be Dracula himself - played by Frank Thornton, better known as Captain Peacock in long running BBC sitcom Are You Being Served. Any while this line of spooky snacks would only last a handful of years, they were hugely popular, and a sign of how well-loved they were is the plethora of merch the range spawned.
Promotional items have long formed part of the marketing of many foods, in particular those that are aimed at children. The classic template has remained unchanged for decades - collect so many tokens or wrappers and send them off to get a free gift. Well, they say free, but in reality there was often a token amount of money involved too i.e. send off ten wrappers and a cheque or postal order for £1.99 to get your free Marketing Tat-o-tron! Anyhow, this kind of give-away offer was very popular back in the 1970s, a time when shopping by mail was exciting and rare, rather than the default as it is now. And while these items were often of the funny for five minutes type and were destined to end up in the bin very quickly, back then it was massively exciting to get something through the post, particularly you couldn't get anywhere else. Indeed, one of the most powerful tag-lines wielded by marketing departments in the 1970s was "not available in any shop!". Team up that line with a time limit, such as "send in before..." or "only available until...", and you had a powerful formula for boosting your sales, and perhaps harvesting some additional pocket money too. It worked time and time again, even though it often took a ruddy age for the goodies to actually arrive - for "Please allow 28 days for delivery" was the dreaded line of small print in such offers.
Now this kind of promotional giveaway was a common feature with breakfast cereals aimed at kids, something that continues to this very day. However even in the golden age of collect and send in offers, for other food related brands such as sweets and crisps, they were more occasional. Usually they turned up when a new line was launched - with adverts on the telly sometimes, but more often in the pages of popular comics - or when a new flavour or variant was added to the range. Therefore the nature and frequency of such promotions was a very good gauge of how much traction assorted brands actually had. A send-in giveaway that would net you some merch that tied-in to some popular TV or film, or famous pop star or sportsman, showed that the brand was big enough in the playground to be seen as an effective form of marketing. However a product doing collect-and-send-ins for tat featuring its own brand showed that it was an even strong line. It was big enough not to need to hitch its wagon to other properties in the mediasphere, big enough to star in its own promotions as it were. And Horror Bags started off in the usual fashion, with the earliest packets of Fangs and Bones running an offer for a free Dracula mask in late 1974.
And this item was just the first of a long line of ghoulish goodies that took a maddening 28 days for delivery. And over the years, Horror Bags did a massive amount of these giveaways - at least 15 by my count (and a few more may well have slipped under our nostalgia radar too). And given that they were only really on the shelves for around four years, it would appear that not only were they constantly running these giveaways, but also - according to my back of a beermat mathematics - they were running these offers pretty much quarterly. What's more, all these giveaways were for Horror Bags related merch, with not one being done as a tie-in to some other popular property du jour! And that may well be some sort of record! Indeed, the only brand that seemed to run as many send-in-giveways was Trebor's Double Agents... but that's a story for another day!
However all of this does leave us with a trickier question - why did Horror Bags disappear if they were so successful? Well, it would seem that they were killed off to make way for a new rising star in the crisp world. For in 1977, Smiths decided to launch another horror themed snack - Monster Munch. And while Horror Bags gained a new flavour (and shape) in the form of Bats in 1978, at some point in the late 1970s it was decided that the line had had its day, and all future spooky snackery would be Monster Munch shaped. Possibly this was one of the many ripples in the great dank pond of pop culture caused by George Lucas dropping in a large rock named Star Wars.
For while spooky stuff had been very popular with kids in the 1970s, now the future looked scifi flavoured and possibly it was felt that as the fluffy creatures fronting Monster Munch weren't steeped in the macabre and the gothic, they could pass of the kind of weird aliens that populated the Cantina Bar. Indeed, if memory serves, the early telly ads for Monster Munch implied they lived on a planet of puppet monsters. But whatever the reason, Horror Bags disappeared from the shelves, while Monster Munch continues to thrive to this very day.
But even the mighty Monster Munch didn't have quite as many giveaways in its early years as its elder brother Horror Bags! And next time, we will be presenting the fun and freaky items that sending off empty packets of Fangs, Bones, Claws, Ribs, and Bats could net you!
This series of articles is also available in audio form as a podcast!