The top 9 questions about the NutraSweet gumball, when everybody in America got free gumballs in the mail

In 1984, NutraSweet was the new brand name for aspartame, and parent company Searle came up with an interesting way to promote it: they sent millions of gumballs in the mail. We’ll answer your top questions about the gumballs in this FAQ.

The basics

Q: They sent gumballs to everyone in America? Why?

Well, to clarify, in 1984, NutraSweet sent gumballs to five million homes in a massive direct mailing campaign. The idea? Get the NutraSweet name out there and create a compelling consumer brand.

That wasn’t all, however. NutraSweet also took out expansive magazine ads asking people what they liked about NutraSweet. If they sent in a coupon, they could make sure gumballs were sent to their house.

Of course, the gumballs were sent because they were flavored with NutraSweet.

Q: How many gumballs did you get?

Five with each mailing.

Q: How were they sent in the mail?

This NutraSweet commercial shows the packaging.

A plastic wrapper was attached to an envelope. The gumballs were visible inside.

Q: Did they taste good?

Reports vary wildly. The gumballs were probably similar to what you’d find today, since most gumballs are sweetened with aspartame or similar products. Some reviewers said the gumballs were a magical surprise, but others said they broke or partially melted during delivery.

Behind the scenes

Q: So did this crazy campaign work?

Probably. Searle owned a patent on NutraSweet until 1992, so it had a monopoly on the aspartame market until that point. By all accounts, the gumball campaign established NutraSweet as a recognizable brand.

Q: Who came up with the idea?

Ogilvy & Mather was the ad agency.

Ian Miller directed the campaign while Curvin O’Rielly was the creative director.

Q: Who actually made all those gumballs?

Leaf Confectionery, a Chicago company, suggested the idea and made the gumballs. They followed it up by selling their own Chew On brand of NutraSweet gumballs.

Q: What was the campaign’s official name?

“Gumballs America.”

Q: Who owns NutraSweet?

NutraSweet was created by Searle as a consumer-facing brand of aspartame. The company was bought by Monsanto in 1985. In 2000, NutraSweet was sold off to a private equity firm.

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Would a promotion like this work today?