Food & Drink

Despite Show Cancelations, Character Popsicles Are Still Summer's Favorite Treat

The gumdrop eyeballs and grinning faces are unforgettable.

character popsicles popsicle ice cream truck nostalgia
Matthew Kelly/Thrillist

Push cart bells. That familiar song. Crumpled dollar bills ready in hand. Summer officially begins when the ice cream push cart or truck coaxes neighborhood kids outside. The sun is hot, the ice pops are cold, and the menu board options are overwhelming. There’s soft serve dipped in chocolate and nuts, Italian ices in fruity flavors, and the smiling, sometimes creepy faces of character Popsicles

You know the ones. There’s Spiderman and Tweety Bird; the toothy smile of Spongebob; Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls, whose bulging gum drop eyeballs stare right back. The packaging usually denotes a familiar face from contemporary children’s television programming. Once you tear into it, the softened ice cream gives way to a melted face with frighteningly askew gum drop eyeballs. But why, exactly, are characters from discontinued shows from over a decade ago still prevalent? 

According to the brand Popsicle lore, Popsicles were first invented by 11-year-old Frank Epperson. During a frigid San Fransiscan night, Epperson accidentally left his cup of soda with a stirrer outside, only to return to discover a frozen treat on a stick the following morning. He named it an “Episcle” after his own surname, and years later, his children referred to them as “Pop’s ‘sicle.” And since Popsicles were invented by a kid, it only makes sense that the marketing targets kids. Enter the character Popsicles.

Though it’s difficult to pinpoint when exactly character bars emerged, selling Popsicles to kids using mascots and cartoons has been around the Popsicle brand almost as early as its inception. There was Popsicle Pete, introduced in 1939 to encourage kids to save Popsicle wrappers in exchange for toys and prizes, and Popeye, the spinach-eating sailor. Popeye appeared to have a taste for Fudgsicles and Creamsicles and was used in advertisements to sell Popsicles in the late 1930s. 

It makes sense that cartoons are used as a tool for marketing to children. According to a 2010 study in the American Academy of Pediatrics, “Branding food packages with licensed characters substantially influences young children’s taste preferences and snack selection and does so most strongly for energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods.” A spokesperson for Popsicle brand relayed that over 25 million character Popsicles are sold each year, and of those 25 million, Spongebob remains the most popular. “Nearly everyone has fond memories of cooling down on hot summer days with a Popsicle,” the rep said. “We hope that when parents enjoy Popsicles with their families, they remember the fun times they had when they were kids and pass these memories on to the next generation of Popsicle fans.”

Are we drawn to these ice bars due to their affiliation with beloved cartoons, or are we attached thanks to our taste buds' nostalgia? Perhaps it’s a combination of both. For me, the feeling of eating a Powerpuff Girl bar is reminiscent of cherished Saturday mornings watching the crime-fighting series as a kid, but the actual taste brings me to summer days spent in the park.

I wanted to get a psychologist’s perspective on what is continuing to drive Popsicle sales, so I turned to Professor of Psychology at University of London, City Martin Conway who has penned dozens of articles on autobiographical memory and the neurological basis of memory.

“There’s a well known period in memory which often is called the reminiscence bump. We call it the self-defining period in autobiographical memory,” Conway explained to me over a recent video call. The reminiscence bump, he explained, typically dates from childhood to early adulthood. It may be what is motivating adults to indulge in a character ice pop from time to time, whether you’re reaching for Bugs Bunny or Spongebob.

“It turns out that middle aged people, when they recall memories of films and books and football fans and those sort of things, these things often date to this period; this period seems to be very critical. We think it’s the period when the self emerges from childhood into a stable form.” During this period, Conway suggests that the brain maintains a detailed record that’s made available throughout your life. These memories are something one can always refer back to; they’re ingrained into one’s being. It’s entirely possible that Popsicles, if they were significant enough during this period of life, might just remain enshrined in the brain’s filing cabinet. “That may be what’s underlying this urge to buy these ice lollies. It reminds you of this period when the self was emerging from childhood.”

"There’s a whole range of ice lollies you can buy, but you probably buy ones that you relate to from your early teens."

I proposed to Conway: in the case of character bars, perhaps it’s the act of eating the Popsicle itself and the flavors we can recall; sticky, cloyingly sweet, frosty. I am reminded of famous childhood cravings throughout history, like Proust’s madeleine: how the taste of the buttery cookie dipped in tea could transport him to a Sunday morning spent with his aunt. I’ve also thought about the desire to revert to childhood favorites amidst the pandemic in search of a sense of comfort. Professor Conway was not entirely convinced. 

“The food dimension may be important, but my suggestion is that ultimately you’re drawn to being reminded of a time when you were becoming who you are. That’s what makes them attractive. There’s a whole range of ice lollies you can buy, but you probably buy ones that you relate to from your early teens,” Conway said. This argument weighs more on the physical shape of the Popsicles and their association with children’s programming rather than their flavor.

Plus, Conway added, Proust is complicated. “I don’t think it’s straightforwardly nostalgia. I think it has to do with being reminded of when you were developing into who you are… Perhaps that reminding is non-conscious. It doesn’t have to be consciously aware, but it gives you a feeling of a period of when you were changing and developing.”

This makes sense. Recall the media you were consuming as a child, the books you read. What shows and series defined who you became? Harry Potter? The Simpsons? Spongebob Squarepants and his antics? These fragments of culture go on to become sources of comfort; a reminder of one’s former being.

Of course, not all character Popsicles last. It’s been years since I’ve seen a strawberry and banana-flavored Dora the Explorer, or a Wolverine Popsicle based on the X-Men cartoons (complete with sour cherry sideburns). For reasons unknown, Pikachu’s strawberry and lemon form has also gone missing from the chests of ice cream trucks. It seems for some characters, nostalgia and that sense of self can only entice consumers for so long before they’re collectively forgotten and eventually retired.

For what it’s worth, Sweetheart Ice Cream -- a wholesale retailer of frozen treats in Florida -- still carries a pantheon of character Popsicles. The distributor has Popsicles in the shape of the Spiderman and Hello Kitty from Popsicle Brand, as well as some really nostalgic creations from Blue Bunny: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bratz, Bugs Bunny, and Sonic the Hedgehog.

The next time you find yourself standing in front of an ice cream truck, pushcart, or gas station freezer, consider what unknowingly tugs at your heart strings. Sure, you might opt for something as simple as an ice cream sandwich, a Nestlé Drumstick, or a Good Humor Strawberry Shortcake Bar. Or maybe you’ll reach for that character Popsicle that makes you recall moments of yesteryear past: sticky palms, running around the park, or whatever else it may be.

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Kat Thompson is a staff writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @katthompsonn.