Right about now, millions of Americans (mostly men, all procrastinators) are hastily scanning the web to order flowers or secure a restaurant table, having suddenly realized that Valentine’s Day is tomorrow. Spending for the occasion is up this year, according to data from the National Retail Federation, to $19.6 billion—about as much profit as AT&T made in its fourth quarter; about as much as the Senate is budgeting for national infrastructure improvements. In other words: That’s a lot of flowers and a lot of dinners.
It is also, of course, a lot of chocolate—much of it in the form of those inescapable heart-shaped boxes of chocolates. You know the ones: the $9.99 pharmacy grab-and-go’s from Russell Stover and Whitman’s, or slightly more expensive varieties from the likes of Ghirardelli and Godiva. Romeos of the Western world have been giving heart-shaped boxes of chocolates since 1861, when British cocoa scion Richard Cadbury first produced them. Alas, he also failed to patent them, which is why so many brands continue to stamp them out at this time of year. According to one recent statistic, 36 million heart-shaped boxes of chocolate find their way into our paramours’ hands each year.
But while the heart shape itself is unlikely to go out of style for cupid’s holiday, American shoppers appear to be falling out of love, ever so slightly, with the box of chocolates in that shape. Last year, online sweets retailer CandyStore.com conducted a survey that must have broken chocolate brands’ hearts: For the first time, those specialty boxes were no longer the most popular candy for Valentine’s Day.
The new victor? Conversation hearts—better known by the brand name Sweethearts.
According to CandyStore’s figures, while heart-shaped boxes of chocolate make up 9.6 percent of Valentine’s Day candy purchases, conversation hearts account for 10.2 percent. It’s a tiny margin, but with $1.8 billion spent on candy alone, the difference is still significant.
What’s less certain is why. It’s not that conversation hearts are that much newer an idea than boxes of chocolate. The New England Candy Company (better known as Necco), maker of Sweethearts, got its start in 1847. It first produced Necco Wafers, half-dollar-shaped candies made from a hardened sugar dough. The company used the same dough to make Cockles, candy fortune cookies with snippets of wisdom printed on colored paper and tucked inside. In 1866, when Oliver Chase (son of the founder) invented a process by which the sayings could be printed with food coloring directly onto the dough, Sweethearts were born, gradually shrinking in size until, in 1902, they assumed the dimensions they have today.
Yet as anyone who’s ever tried a Sweetheart will attest, the candies have the consistency of Rolaids and, in the view of many, roughly the same taste. “At the end of the day, [Sweethearts are] basically just sugar—not a lot of flavor,” said Beth Kimmerle, food consultant and author of Candy: The Sweet History. “Eating them is not the point,” she said.
Curiously enough, this actually suggests the most probable reason for Sweethearts’ growing popularity: It’s not about the candy, but the words on the candy.
Necco did not respond to requests for comment for this piece, but the confectioner has a well-known track record of curating the messages on its candies. In particular, it strikes a thoughtful balance between classic messages it’s used for decades (“Be Mine,” “Kiss Me”) and more culturally current ones (“Text Me,” “Tweet Me”). “One of the things that makes them so fun is some [messages] are funny and relevant and some are dated and musty,” Kimmerle said.
Sweethearts has also added a variety in Spanish and, just as crowdsourcing was getting popular, also began reaching out to the public for suggestions of new messages. In 2010, for instance, Americans wrote in with 10,000 nominations. Some of them made it—“Puppy Love,” “You Rock”—and some (including “Justin Bieber”) did not.
Kimmerle added that it’s not just Sweethearts’ evolving messages that have helped make the candy popular but, significantly, the conciseness of those messages.
With only a few characters of space on that little piece of hardened dough, Sweethearts are a kind of candy analog to texting and tweeting, where the novelty lay in brevity and cleverness. “Talk about limited characters—it’s two lines,” Kimmerle said. “That really limited them in what they could say.” But limited wordage is hardly a problem for today’s younger consumers, and Necco clearly has them in mind, too. In 2014 the company added the first hashtag to Sweethearts—#LOVE—and, a year later, ditched words altogether in favor of emojis.
“We have to evaluate what’s modern, what’s hot, how people are actually communicating,” the company’s social media specialist Mary Lane told the New York Daily News that year.
Of course, as is so often the case with how people communicate, the relevant can quickly become the pointless and cringeworthy. Among the messages that Necco has mercifully led behind the barn: “Boogie,” “Fax Me” and “You Are Gay.”
Hmmm. Well, regardless of what the conversation heart happens to say, the conversation itself continues to draw in Valentine’s Day shoppers—including the younger ones, who are into sweets more than one might think. According to the NRF, among 18-24-year-olds who plan to shop for Valentine’s Day this year, 69 percent of them say they’ll give candy to their BFFs (and yes, that’s printed on a Sweetheart, too.)