What’s red and white (and black) and blue? The decades-long battle between the manufacturers of three iterations of the iconic tri-colored, patriotic popsicles. Thanks to their similar names and nearly identical appearances, you’ve likely mistaken summertime staples Bomb Pops, Rocket Pops, and Firecrackers,for one another plenty of times. And while they’ll usually only set you back a buck a piece, their manufacturers have millions of dollars at stake as they continue their frozen, syrupy arms race. Who will save us from this ice cold war, and how did we end up here in the first place?
The original, rocket-shaped, but confusingly-named Bomb Pop was first invented in 1955 by D.S. “Doc” Abernathy and James S. Merritt, for Kansas City, Missouri’s Merritt Foods. The iconic red, white and blue stack was flavored cherry, lime and blue raspberry. When Merritt Foods eventually shut down operations in 1991, Bomb Pop manufacturing was sold off to Iowa-based Wells Dairy/Wells Enterprises. The frozen confections are still made today in La Mars, Iowa.
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Over the years, Wells grew its singular Bomb Pop into an entire line of triple-stacked treats. A nearly equally famous fudge and banana iteration was eventually joined by a red and green watermelon variety. Licensing deals with Jolly Rancher, Hawaiian Punch and Warheads candy resulted in subsequent treats. Disney even sold a Buzz Lightyear version in its theme parks beginning in 2003. Merritt, and eventually Wells, had created a seemingly unstoppable battery of desserts.
In 1971, Wells won a trademark for its creation, protecting its intellectual property across a wide range of categories, covering “coffee, tea, cocoa, sugar, rice, tapioca, sago, artificial coffee; flour and preparations made from cereals, bread, pastry and confectionery, ices; honey, treacle; yeast, baking-powder; salt, mustard; vinegar, sauces (condiments); spices; ice.” Curiously, while ice is mentioned, the edible ices and ice creams filing categories were left absent from the award.
You need to go back in time a few decades further to get to the bottom of this dispute though. In 1905, an 11-year-old Frank Epperson invented the first popsicle, after accidentally leaving a mixture of powdered soda flavoring he had been toying around with out on his porch overnight. He awoke in the morning to find the mixture frozen overnight, critically embedding the stick he had been using to mix his concoction together poking straight up from the center. In 1923, a much older Emerson began selling a more developed version of his signature treats on California’s Neptune Beach. A year later. Emmerson’s Ice Pop was rechristened a popsicle – a portmanteau of soda pop and icicle.
After winning a patent for his sugary invention in 1923, Emmerson would eventually sell both his creation and the entire Popsicle brand to the Joe Lowe Company in New York City. Now armed with a patent, Joe Lowe immediately got to work filing suit against the string of competitors that had taken shape in recent years, Good Humor, M-B Ise Kream Company of Texas, and Kold Kake, among them. A litigious frozen commodities culture was born.
Popsicle may have been first to the sugary fruit ice on a stick game, but it didn’t launch its own red, white and blue Bomb Pop competitor – the Firecracker – until 1989, in the dwindling days of the United States’ Cold War with the U.S.S.R. And Popsicle didn’t get around to actually patenting the name until 2007, the year of the Iraq War troop surges. If Popsicle was worried that its Firecracker was being outgunned by the Bomb Pop, the company certainly didn’t show it.
But in 2014, Popsicle parent company Unilever launched a legal attack against Wells, following the roll out of a redesigned Bomb Pop box. Popsicle effectively argued that Wells sought to trick consumers into believing that Bomb Pops – the original, mind you – were a part of the Popsicle brand, alongside the knockoff Firecrackers. Millions of dollars in revenue were at stake here, according to Unilever, which presented a Popsicle-produced study that found that 60% of consumers associated the new Bomb Pop packaging with the Firecracker company. Later in the year, Wells retaliated with a counterclaim against Popsicle’s usage of the words “The Original” on their packaging, when its red, white and blue rocket was decades late to the arms race.
In the end, the court picked both companies’ lawyers apart. Popsicle had to edit its “Original” claim to clearly denote it was the original maker of ice pops, not of the rocket-shaped patriotic pops first constructed by Wells. And Wells, for its part, failed to convince the court that consumer confusion had had any explosive impact on its Bomb Pop sales. Neither side was completely decimated, but nobody was particularly motivated to fly a victory flag either. And worse, while these bitter rivals were busy waging war on one another, Nestle opened up its silos, and let loose the Triple Rocket, a practically identical cherry, white lemon & blue raspberry ice pop.
Today, the cherry-lime-blue raspberry flavor profile has been repurposed across a wide spectrum of categories, both in and outside of the food sector. Smirnoff sells a seasonal Red, White & Berry vodka, and Croozerboards makes a skateboard bearing the iconic color scheme and stick. Pop-Tarts even has a take on it. Heck, a restaurant I once owned featured an artisanal Rocket Pop cocktail each July. The stacked red, white and blue stripes tend to bubble back up each year for Independence Day, but they stick around all summer long.
Rocket pop branding has outgrown the frozen foods aisle, raining down across U.S. summertime culture along the way. And sure, sweaty consumers might not care which brand is being sold to them by the teenagers weaving their plastic coolers in between beach towels this week, but chances are, we’ll all be encountering these sweet staples all the same. Bomb Pops, Firecrackers, and even Triple Rockets may have lost their individual battles for brand supremacy, but they collectively won the war.