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Published: Friday, 2/10/2006

Pop culture: Soft-centered sucker is part of Americana

BY RYAN E. SMITH
BLADE STAFF WRITER

It started with one lick.

Then it was followed by 326 more.

It took 75 years, but at last now Toledo knows how many licks it takes to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop.

Sort of. Even this finding - discovered after 14 minutes of grueling yet tasty work by this reporter - isn't definitive.

Tootsie Roll Industries, which started making the popular lollipops with soft, chocolaty centers three-quarters of a century ago in 1931, has received plenty of other guesses over the years.

More than 20,000 letters have poured in from children offering their answers to the question posed in a famous 1970 commercial: "How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?"

It's an ad campaign that has become ingrained in popular culture.

"You kind of take your hat off with respect to the people who did what we teach now," said Jeff Bryden, a marketing instructor at Bowling Green State University who spent 30 years in the ad agency business.

"They got to the center of this" - pun intended? - "not by their own research. They basically talked to people who ate the product. They talked to customers. ... I think they adapted a question that maybe they'd heard people talk about."

It's the simplicity of it that touches people, he said.

Of course, answering the question posed in the commercial is less simple, particularly if you tend to be overwhelmed by a desire to prematurely bite into a Tootsie Pop. Remember Mr. Owl's attempt to get to the center in that old animated spot, which still runs on TV along with an updated version?

"One, two, three." Crunch. "Three."

"I think there's a natural argument between the tongue and the teeth," said Ellen Gordon, president of Tootsie Roll Industries, which is based in Chicago. "I barely ever get there without biting."

There are other issues that make a definitive answer difficult to come by: the size of one's mouth and tongue, the amount and acidity of the saliva, varying licking techniques.

That's why estimates from children run from a low of 100 licks to a high of 5,800 licks. Most range between 600 and 800 licks, according to the company.

A few have tried a more scientific approach, the Tootsie Rolls Industries Web site reports. A chemical engineering doctorate student from the University of Michigan once made a licking machine that required an average of 411 licks per Tootsie Pop.

At Purdue University, a group of engineering students built a licking machine modeled on a human tongue. A blueprint suggests it involved sponges attached to a rotating ring that would pass over a stationary sucker.

Their experiment showed an average of 364 licks. (They tried the same test on 20 human volunteers and found the average number of licks to be lower, 252.)

This reporter followed a similar method, using the tongue to lap at one side of the lollipop. It took 327 licks to melt through the hard, grape-flavored shell and just break into the chewy center.

(Grape is a personal favorite, but cherry is by far the most popular flavor, according to Ms. Gordon. Chocolate ranks second.)

Widening the experiment to the entire newsroom led to one undeniable conclusion: People can't follow directions.

No two people seemed to have the same licking technique. Some practiced total immersion, putting the whole sucker in their mouths and then taking it out with each lick. Others put it in their mouths and just left it there.

The range of resulting guesstimates was wide, anywhere from under 100 to 350.

One man grabbed a blue raspberry sucker, chomped down hard, threw away the empty stick, and declared, "One!" The whole process took maybe five seconds. Maybe.

Another railed on about how eating a Tootsie Pop near a leaking nuclear reactor would require fewer licks because of high-speed neutrons - or something.

Maybe we should have splurged and bought a bunch of "lick-o-meters." The devices, which fit on keychains and have LCD readouts that automatically tally licks, are available from various Web sites for about $7.

Ms. Gordon, the company president, said the treat remains the top-selling lollipop.

It was the first one with a soft chewy center and has become pure Americana.

"Everyone knows what they are even if they don't actually eat them," said Lucy Long, a part-time assistant professor of popular culture at BGSU. "It's the type of thing that would be very easy for memories to get attached - and generally positive memories."

Who loves ya, baby? Well, Telly Savalas, for one. As the TV detective Kojak, he often had a Tootsie Pop in hand - or in his mouth - as he solved crimes.

Steven Kear, owner of the Candy Jar in downtown Perrysburg, sells Tootsie Pops, but said they're not as popular as they once were. Kids these days seem to prefer sour candies and gummy products.

"I don't think it captures the young kids market," he said.

Still, the idea of a Tootsie Pop and the question that always comes with it brings a happy ring to his voice.

"I was a notorious biter," Mr. Kear confessed. "I couldn't even begin to lick it that many times. Now, I have a little bit more self control. I can suck on it until I almost get to the Tootsie Roll."

Almost. Meaning that Mr. Kear is still left wondering:

How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

The world may never know.

Contact Ryan E. Smith at:

ryansmith@theblade.com

or 419-724-6103.



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