Werther's Original: a universally loved confection steeped in nostalgia. But where does it come from, and what's that kindly grandfather really up to?
You know the picture. That plummy chap talking about his old grandad who used to give him Werther’s Original when he was a lad, conjuring a glowing, richly nostalgic portrait of an England gone by. A picture of a time when sweets really were sweets and came in great big jars and you could get a brown-paper-bagful for tuppence. Of hazy summer days, larking about in cornfields, riding the baker’s delivery bike up an endless cobbled street – a Turner sky above, a Vaughan Williams symphony on the gramophone. It’s Spitfires roaring overhead back to Blighty, and Vera Lynn singing ‘There’ll be blue birds over the White Cliffs Of Dover...’ In short, it’s much that citizens of these islands hold dear about this land of ours – a vision that, we would like to think, is undeniably real and valid and important, even if we know it is based an idealised, rose-tinted version of what really was.
But hang on a minute... Although your actual grandad probably does love the creamy, buttery taste of Werthers (who doesn't?) have you ever wondered why he can’t seem to remember having heard of them before 1997? Do you simply embrace your ageist prejudices and blame it on senility? Or is there some other, more subtle trick being played?
Let’s travel back for a moment, to an age beyond that mythical childhood...
Some time in 1903, in the small town of Werther, in Westphalia, Germany, one August Storck set up a small company for the manufacture of hard-boiled sweets. Aided by his chief confectioner Gustav Nebel, he created a range of traditional candies that found immediate success. The jewel in the crown – his finest candy of all – was a delicious toffee-butterscotch concoction. The secret? ‘Good butter, fresh cream, sugar, a pinch of salt and a lot of patience’. So delicious was this candy that he called it ‘Werther's Original’ in homage to his little home town.
The Storck Company went from strength to strength. In the 1930s – according to its own website – it ‘developed the first brand-name bonbon. Until then, sweets had been sold unpackaged, as no-name products, in the manufacturer´s home region only. Storck wrapped its bonbons, printed the Storck name on the wrappers and soon sold them far beyond its home base’. As the German packaging of Werther’s Original has it: ‘We can today, all over the world, savour the delicious and creamy taste of this original recipe as if the candy came directly from the workshop of the confectioner Gustav Nebel’.
And it is indeed enjoyed the world over. In Germany, as elsewhere, they ran the same advertising campaign as here (until it was recently changed to the current 'virtual dad' campaign in the UK), with a similar old grandad, saying exactly the same thing (but in German) to an identical child.
But let’s jump back to your old grandfather for a minute. If he grew up here in Britain, was he at any time enjoying Werther’s Original as a youth? Well, no. Not unless he was a youth after 1997, which, while not a complete biological impossibility, would require either the ability to travel in time, or the perpetration of a number of illegal sexual acts. So, your Olde English grandad never ate Werther’s when he was a youth, a teenager, or even middle aged. In fact, at some point he was quite possibly being called up to shoot at the very people who were. And, while it is entirely possible that his German counterpart was entertaining elegiac thoughts of cornfields and endless summer days as he sucked wistfully on Gustav Nebel’s latest hit confection and contemplated the inevitable war – probably with as much trepidation as anyone else – what he certainly wasn’t doing was listening to Vera Lynn, cheering Mr Churchill or toiling up an impossibly steep hill in a flat cap to the strains of Yorkshire colliery band. In fact, that fabled, amiable, Werther’s munching grandfather was far more likely to have been in the Hitler Youth or the Waffen SS, listening to Wagner, whistling The Horst Wessel Song and trying to avoid being shot up by those hordes of rampaging Spitfires before they buggered off back to Blighty.
None of this is Werther’s doing, of course. Werther’s Original are merely a diminutive but delicious sensual treat, and it is, of course, a wonderful thing that Gustav Nebel’s great creation is available to the world at large. And also that this humble little candy is contributing to – and even, in its own small, sticky way, perhaps helping to heal – the sadly troubled cultural heritage of Germany. So hooray for all that.
But what is really odd is how this simple advert has, without seemingly any need for great efforts of persuasion, effected a kind of substitution of one model of the past for an entirely different one. It’s a kind of Orwellian doublethink – not because it has made a one-time enemy seem like a friend (it never was trying to do that, and anyway, we’re too grown up now to get hung up on that sort of prejudice) but because it is inviting us to believe a completely fictional past – not one that has been subtly changed or improved or nostalgically idealised, but one which actually never existed at all. And, willingly, we accept it.
Don’t blame Werther’s. They’re just being consistent. Frugal with their advertising budget. Staying on brand. Why shouldn't they have the same advertising the world over? It’s us we should be worried about. Because the day might come when your old grandad, without needing to, starts to really believe he chomped on Werther’s as a nipper. And, worse, we all might somehow lose our memory of that moment when history changed. ‘Oh, come on,’ you say. ‘It’s just a packet of bloody sweets. What’s the big deal?’ But what other made-up histories might we be capable of believing, simply because they’re offered, and because they’re a little more attractive than what we’ve got?