The Little-Known Backstory Behind Airheads

You might assume that the biggest thing to come out of August 1985 was Michael Jackson buying the rights to every Beatles song for $47 million (via History). We'd argue it was Airheads. 

The company is so well-loved today that it thinks it can pull off grape flavored ice cream. So if Airheads are a Halloween must-have (or if you're one of those oddballs that thinks grape ice cream is a good idea) you can start celebrating August 7, 1985. According to then-Director of Marketing for Van Melle, Steve Bruner, that's the day that he submitted plans for the candy (via Candy Favorites). Back in the '80s, Van Melle was known for Mentos (you know, those things you like to mix with Coca-Cola to make explosions). 

But the company was looking to diversify. In doing so, it developed the technology and warehouse space in Kentucky to produce a fruit chew wrapped in rice paper for Lipton Tea. After discovering that consumers weren't fans of rice paper, Lipton went another direction. Van Melle, scrambling to find a use for their machinery, tried making the fruit chews sans the rice paper. They came up with a "blob on a plate." Enter Airheads.

The surprising story behind Airheads' catchy name

Steve Bruner had heard that a new candy name could take up to a generation to "become part of the confectionary landscape." He didn't have that time. He went in search of a name that everyone had heard before. How? He simply asked his sons, "what would you call your friend who did something silly?" (via Candy Favorites). 

If you didn't grow up in the '80s, you'd be forgiven for not knowing that "airhead" (like "narbo") was a prime insult for a stupid or empty-headed person (via Your Dictionary). Little wonder that the candy name "Airhead" did well in focus groups among children aged nine through fifteen. 

But Bruner wasn't only targeting 9- to 15-year-olds. Enter the balloon. "Coming out of the hippie generation," Bruner realized that "the words high could be used in many different ways." With the help of a red cartoon balloon, he marketed the new candy as a "new high in fruity flavors." Needless to say, the marketing worked.

By 2014, the Airheads factory in Kentucky was producing about 3,000 pounds of taffy and 4 million bars a day (via WDRB). The company has also launched new products. In July 2020, for example, Van Melle announced that Airheads fanatics will soon be able to munch down on "Airheads Filled Ropes" in Bluest Raspberry, Cherry, Watermelon, Strawberry, and Orange flavors (via Candy Industry). Yes, the package includes a signature, smiling, red balloon.