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Akst: The Twinkie – a metaphor for America’s ills

Published: Friday, July 26, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

(Continued from Page 1)

In a classic scene from the 1984 film “Ghostbusters,” Ghostbuster Egon Spengler warns of a worsening situation. He picks up a Twinkie and says if his new information is accurate, the Twinkie would be 35 feet long and weigh 600 pounds.

Like that giant Twinkie, it was hard to miss last week’s news about the return of the iconic, yellow, cylindrical snack cake filled with … something.

Twinkies are among the most recognizable consumer products in American culture. They’re Americana, going back to at least 1930.

From the get-go, we snarfed them by the ton. We joked about their nutritional value and how they could survive a nuclear holocaust. There’s even a legal defense strategy named for them.

Let’s not quibble. Each cake is a caloric, sugar- and fat-laden coffin nail. I’m surprised they don’t have nicotine.

Despite this history and popularity, by November 2012 the Twinkie was on life support. Snack market competition was robust and consumers had begun paying more attention to nutrition.

But the real problem at Hostess, CEO Gregory Rayburn said, was that union workers refused to accept further pay cuts and benefit reductions.

“The leadership of that union [the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union] made the decision that they’re willing to sacrifice these jobs because they don’t really want to have these kinds of concessions from other companies,” Rayburn said at the time.

In other interviews, Rayburn said other unions had been more flexible and he told CNBC that company management had been “poor.”

But make no mistake: Despite November 2012 marking the second time that privately held, Irving, Texas-based Hostess had been in bankruptcy, the reason the picture was bleak was because of workers.

And now we’re excited about the comeback. Media interviews gush.

As the Washington Post notes, “After emerging from bankruptcy free of pesky unions and crushing debt, parent company Hostess is pushing its standard brands into thousands more locations, accompanied by a high-profile ad campaign that promises the ‘sweetest comeback in the history of ever.’ ”

Bigger and better than ever, right?

Well, not bigger. The new Twinkie is smaller (each cake is 38.5 grams, compared with 42.5 grams a cake previously). The shelf life – already the subject of lore – has also increased to 45 days from 26 days.

Private equity firms Apollo Global Management and Metropoulos & Co. (Hostess’s new owners) said previous owners made those decisions in mid-2012.

It’s unclear whose decision it was to freeze Twinkies at retailers’ request or to allow retailers to charge different prices.

“This is how makers of consumer prices deal with rising costs,” writes Al Lewis, a columnist for Dow Jones Newswires. “They keep the price the same but shrink the product, hoping customers won’t notice, and it remains as a piece of hidden inflation.”

I say the new Twinkie illuminates much of what’s wrong in America.

It comes at the expense of thousands of livelihoods, produced with 10 percent of the former workforce.

Meanwhile, as the Chicago Tribune reports, the new owners have spent “several million dollars on a marketing blitz using social media, Vine videos, billboards, building walls and a website called Prepare Your CakeFace. Street teams are handing out T-shirts and ‘I Saved the Twinkie’ buttons.”

We’re paying more and getting less of a product that’s bad for us. The profits from this ill-advised choice will overwhelmingly benefit already ridiculously rich people, and clever promotion of a product everybody already knows about assures us we can be happy about all this.

The best response I can think of to this outrage comes from another classic movie. In this scene, Kevin Bacon, while being paddled, cries out, “Thank you sir! May I have another?”

• Jason Akst teaches journalism and public relations at Northern Illinois University. You can reach him at jasondakst@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter (@jasonakst).

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