Sweet success

When it comes to Valentine's Day gifts, diamonds may be forever, but Necco Sweethearts come pretty close, too.

The chalky pastel candies bearing messages like "True Love" and "Hot Stuff," officially called Sweetheart Conversation Hearts, are one of the most enduring and best-selling tokens of Valentine's Day. They have been produced since 1902 and about 8 billion of the individual candies were sold last year.

The candies are famous mainly for two things: their distinctive flavors and their short, sometimes enigmatic messages.

Taste the Rainbow

Sweethearts come in six flavors, according to Lory Zimbalatti, a spokeswoman for Necco, the company that makes them. Purple Sweethearts are grape-flavored and Pink Sweethearts are cherry-flavored. Orange ones are supposed to taste like orange while white taste like wintergreen. Yellow is banana and green is, interestingly enough, lemon.

"I'm not sure (why that's the case), but it's been that way for a long time," Zimbalatti said.

She also said the mismatching could be due to the fact that Necco Wafers, the candy Necco has made the longest, include lemon-flavored yellow discs and lime-flavored green discs. When Sweethearts went into production, Necco wanted to have kid-friendly banana instead of lime. So yellow became banana, leaving green with lemon flavor.

Like Shakespeare, but on candy… sort of

Necco prints more than 100 sayings on the hearts. The original library of messages included such phrases as "Be Mine" and "Sweet Talk." In the late '90s, Zambalatti said, more tech-savvy sayings like "Fax Me" and "E-mail Me" were added.

The most recent message Necco has introduced is ILU.

"They tell me kids use text messages now, and that means 'I Love You,'" Zambalatti said.

The most popular message is "Marry Me," according to Zambalatti.

"Probably the most frequently requested is 'Marry Me' because so many people use it propose," Zambaletti said, adding that hearts with that message are sometimes slipped into engagement ring boxes or left on plates as a nontraditional way to propose.

Secrets for success

The use of Sweethearts in marriage proposals and other situations demonstrates their widespread popularity. AT&T used "Call Me" Sweethearts in a national ad campaign that ran in USA Today newspapers in the early 1990s, Zambalatti said. HAVEN, Marquette's anti-domestic violence program, used the familiar shape in ads last year.

Chocolate and conversation hearts like Sweethearts are the top two types of Valentine's Day candy, according to Susan Fussell, a spokeswoman for the National Confectioner's Association.

Fussell attributed Sweethearts' success to the candy's history and close connection with the holiday.

"They've been around for a very long time, and many of us have had them around since childhood. We've grown up with Sweethearts, so they're very closely connected with childhood," she said. "This candy is also only available once a year. It's kind of an emotional trigger that Valentine's Day is around the corner. Candies like that tend to be very popular."

Associate Professor of Marketing Dennis Garrett agreed with Fussell.

"I think a lot of the goodwill toward (Sweethearts) comes from associations we form at an early age," he said. Many people received Sweethearts at a time when everyone-gets-one Valentine cards policies were in effect and elementary school parties where the hit of the day, according to Garrett, and those associations make Sweethearts that much more appealing.

"People associate them with what I hope is a more innocent time, and I think those feelings stay with us," he said.

Keeping it Clean

Despite Internet rumors and urban myths that there are "naughty" Sweethearts with sexually explicit messages, Zambalatti said Necco-produced candies would never display R-rated messages.

"I can't answer for other companies (that might make such candies) but we would never do that," Zambalatti said.