What were the precise market conditions that created the demand for Betty Crocker's Pudding Roll-Ups? The answer to this flummoxes me, particularly because I wasn't yet born in September 1987, the date at which my records suggest Betty Crocker began production of these opaque blobs of custard ensconced in plastic.
Betty Crocker's Fruit Roll-Ups had, by that point, floated around the American market since 1983. Perhaps this instilled in Betty Crocker a false sense of hubris that kids needed the Pudding Roll-Up offered in three flavors: butterscotch, chocolate fudge, and milk chocolate. After all, the task of eating pudding from a cup, with a spoon, is unduly burdensome—and kids are always on the go! Shockingly, Pudding Roll-Ups were discontinued soon after, though history has obfuscated when exactly this discontinuation happened; some believe it was around 1988, indicating a premature death.
The poor Pudding Roll-Up, reduced to a punchline in its afterlife. A petition dated June 2016 to resurrect it has one whopping signature, while among the first hits for a Google search of its name is an Onion article from 16 years ago that details the travails of a Kentucky grandmother named Edna Leigh who, in a desperate need to feed her 12-year-old grandson, "retrieved a dusty, faded box of circa-1988 Betty Crocker-brand Pudding Roll-Ups from the darkest recesses of her kitchen cupboard." But the commercial, below, is a twee earworm I jam out to on occasion, or open up when I'm aching for something to be irrationally angry about. Look:
Let's recap. "Wanna see some pudding?" wise guy over here squeaks, emerging from his foggy harbor milieu. Then, a group of three small children cosplaying as the Residents, that anonymous art collective composed of eyeballs wearing tophats, emerge from a street corner, limbs disappearing behind beige-tinged trench coats. Perhaps you've spotted Robot Chicken's Seth Green, merely 11 at the time of the commercial; this commercial rests on his laundry list of child acting credits. (I attempted to reach Green for comment, curious to know whether he's got fond memories of filming this commercial, and he didn't respond. I was furious given the urgency of this matter.)
"How can it be? I can't believe my eyes," these kids sing. "New Pudding Roll-Ups—pudding in disguise!" The camera then pans to approximately five boxes of Pudding Roll-Ups buried in a box. What follows is perhaps the most horrific frame captured by a camera since the reveal of Donald Sutherland's murderer from Don't Look Now. The three children stand next to each other and Green, in the middle, puts a chocolate-flavored Pudding Roll-Up against his face, cut-out circles where his eyes should be.
"They can be lots of things pudding can't be, but the yummy-yummy taste," the group continues, before it gives way to a young man attempting a guttural drawl, declaring, "That's puddin' to me!"
We're treated to a seconds-long reprieve during which adult human man's voice enters the fray. And then the children return. They perform a carefully choreographed dance where, Pudding Roll-Ups in tow, they ascend stairs backwards before turning ninety degrees and doing so sideways, throwing their hats so carefully that they land neatly on the boxes of Pudding Roll-Ups.
Adorable, I guess? But I also feel for these poor children, reduced to pantomiming their way through a makeshift grimy cityscape to sell a confectionary that appears to be objectively inedible. This filmic tradition of forcing children to enact adulthood is an American pastime; watching this, I'm reminded of Tatum O'Neal play-acting her way to an Oscar in Paper Moon, mimicking the machismo habits of the adults in her life. I am getting palpitations watching this commercial as I think back to mandatory acting classes in my elementary school, wherein I was asked by my elders to don some ill-fitting costume and pretend I was an adult, all for their entertainment.
The Pudding Roll-Up is remembered fondly in some corners, with soft trauma in others. Ten years and five months ago, musicradio77 of Retrojunk called this "most silliest jingle I've heard in my life." Interesting. Musicradio77 continues, "Pudding Roll-Ups has discontinued. Some people ate them and they are so gross! Nothing compares to Jell-O pudding than Pudding Roll-Ups [sic]. It was a nasty snack. The commercial with the trenchcoats singing the jingle was nasty. I used to eat them when I was a kid and it was so gross."
"Pudding roll-ups were exactly as I had expected them to be: disgusting. It was like chewing on a soft piece of rubber," recalls kimsy520. Nice. "I remember these. Not so good. Like normal roll ups nobody ate them flat. Just wad them all into a big ball and eat them like an apple," claims YouTube's Explore Southwest. Hm. Is this a common practice? Please let me know. I know no one who does this.
I wrote Betty Crocker directly and demanded answers. Why had this product been discontinued so swiftly? When, exactly, had it been discontinued? Too fussy to wait for a written response, I got on the phone and called Betty Crocker's hotline this morning. A gracious representative, Toccara, answered the phone and gamely fielded my question before she kept me on hold for ten minutes.
"I'm sorry for the long wait," she told me, her voice taking on a soft lilt. "Thank you for your patience. I really had to travel back in time. I didn't get a ton of information, because the product was made such a long time ago, so there was no barcode to go by or anything." Registering her tone's subtext, I began to brace myself for disappointment.
"It looks like the product was, as you said, started sometime around the 80s, and discontinued shortly thereafter," she told me. "The late 80s. Around 1993."
Wait, what the hell? The presumed facts Toccara was handing me had suddenly shape-shifted in a matter of moments. This suggestion that it'd in fact been discontinued in 1993 sent my morning into a tailspin—by this timeline, I would've been one year old when the Pudding Roll-Up exited the market.
I attempted to mask my confusion from Toccara, ending with a polite "Thank you so much!" I got the sense that she could detect I was aching for answers, unhappy with her wildly unspecific timeline of "sometime in the 80s," and gave me some year in that ballpark. And I didn't want to make her job that much harder, so I didn't protest. Instead, I haphazardly consulted my trove of existing literature on the Pudding Roll-Up, only to find nothing corresponded with the timeline of 1993 Toccara had given me.
Grasping for answers, I reached out to my older sister, a child of the 80s, believing that perhaps she'd know whether I was alive when these Pudding Roll-Ups were around.
Thankfully, she responded to requests for comment.
"I don't remember them," she texted me. "But they sound disgusting."
Remember the Betty Crocker Pudding Roll-Up? Or, have a recipe for one? Know when they were discontinued? Let us know in the comments!