How Slim Jims went from bar snack to backpacks—with a little help from Macho Man

Macho Man Randy Savage snapping into a Slim Jim, extremely
Gif: Libby McGuire

The original Slim Jim mascot more closely resembled Mr. Peanut than a professional wrestler. Wearing a top hat and carrying a cane, the aptly named “Slim Jim” was an elegant mascot touting slightly less elegant snack food—but it wasn’t until these bar snacks teamed up with trash-talking, neon-leather-clad, larger-than-life Macho Man Randy Savage that Slim Jims became a staple of American teenage existence.

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The thing is, there wasn’t really anything particularly flashy or marketable about these dirt-brown, pencil-thin, ready-to-eat dried jerky sticks at first. Adolph Levis, inventor of the Slim Jim, was a real mensch. The high school dropout began his adult life as a violinist before pivoting to a career as a tobacconist in the 1930s. When both paths failed him, Levis and a local meat-packer named Joseph Cherry made the business decision to get into the flourishing pickled-food trade, and together they sold mouth-watering snacks like pig’s feet and cabbage to local bars in Philadelphia in the 1940s.

Cherry and Levis formed the aptly named company Cherry-Levis Food Products in the 1950s and started selling Slim Jims (originally called Penn Rose) to local bars where they were then sold to hungry barflys in jars of vinegar. In 1967, Cherry-Levis Food Products sold Slim Jims to General Mills for $20 million, but they would go largely unnoticed for decades.

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“We think of Slim Jims now as the food that a lot of teenage boys like, a ‘rite of passage’ food,” says Dan Skinner, manager of brand communications at ConAgra. “But that wasn’t the case in the ’80s and ’90s. It was sold at taverns at bars out of a jar and you’d buy it as accompaniment for your drink.” Skinner explains that the Slim Jim was seen as a blue-collar snack, something you’d eat in between your beer and a shot. Soon, though, Generation X became a demographic worth pursuing in all walks of life; The Coca-Cola Company even released a way too on-the-nose soda to appeal to them. Slim Jims needed their own tweak, a change in messaging that would strike a chord with a generation powered by irony.

“I came up with ‘Snap into a Slim Jim,’” says writer and creative consultant Tom Leland. North Castle Partners, the ad agency that held GoodMark Foods (makers of Slim Jims) around 1988-89, conducted market research to determine whether the aging bar snack had any modern-day appeal.

“How were we going to get this snack to stand out?” says Leland. “Kids eat candy bars… how were we going to get them to eat this?” One tactic was to highlight not just the flavor, but the experience of eating a Slim Jim. “The research uncovered a couple of key things: [consumers] liked the snap that comes from biting through the casing. ‘Snap’ is a probably bit of a misnomer, but it’s probably the most accurate word that everyone could understand.” (The trademark snap, by the way, actually comes from lactic acid “starter” culture, which creates the fermentable mash that is eventually squirted into long collagen casings. The raw mix cooks at 85 degrees for 17 hours, causing the snap that would go on to define the product. Extreme!)

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Leland’s focus group research concluded that kids saw Slim Jim as a “pick-me-up… an interesting, exciting snack” that felt distinctly more adult than the chips and candy bars they’d typically buy after school.

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Leland and his then art director Roger Martensen began a verbal game of catch, tossing ideas back and forth until Leland landed on the phrase “snap into it,” then “Snap into a Slim Jim.” As for who would utter the tagline, Macho Man Randy Savage wasn’t the first choice to be the voice of Slim Jim—he wasn’t even the second.

For many creatives striving to craft a national campaign with wide appeal, the big idea typically precedes the talent. Leland and the team (which also included producer Sue Fehlinger and creative director Hal Rosen) knew what “snap” translated to in 1988, or what they hoped it would. This was when bands like Nirvana, Pearl Jam, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and the Smashing Pumpkins topped the charts; snap was rude and crude, loud and unapologetic. Who could be the face of such an unabashedly clamorous brand? According to Leland, the late-comic Sam Kinison was a contender for the position before his lawyer shot it down. So they turned to the other loudest thing on television: the WWF.

By 1990, the World Wrestling Federation had four pay-per-view specials (Royal Rumble, WrestleMania, SummerSlam, and Survivor Series) and dominated both national television and cable networks. Hulk Hogan was the face of the WWF in those days, but his brand didn’t quite fit the frenetic energy of a meat stick trying to forge a new relationship with consumers in the ’90s. The first commercial in Slim Jim’s new campaign featured then-legend Ultimate Warrior breaking into the garage of a couple of bored-looking teenagers, screaming about snacks.

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“Wrestlers, as a group, communicate energy really well,” says Skinner. “If you’re dozing off on the couch, hearing [WWF wrestlers] on your TV would wake you up.” The reasons the brand switched from Ultimate Warrior to Randy Savage are long forgotten by those involved, but those who remember Savage spitting the iconic line think of him as the soul of Slim Jim.

Remembered as one of the greatest wrestlers to ever grace the ring, Macho Man Randy Savage stepped into the role of jerky spokesman in 1993 and held the position until 2000. The commercials are perfect: the encapsulation of an entire generation’s disdain for authority. For Gen X, Macho Man Randy Savage and Macho Man Randy Savage–adjacent products summed up teenage disregard for the finer things. After all, there was nothing gourmet about Slim Jim or its image.

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More often than not, a commercial would begin with a gaggle of teenage boys being scolded by an uptight parent, grandparent, or shopkeeper. Savage would break through walls and ceilings to side with the kids, leaving a path of destruction behind him. “Need a little excitement? Snap into a Slim Jim!” [Tasty shreds of guitar, bolts of lightning, etc.] In one commercial, the kids and their jerky savior annihilate a mom-and-pop lighting store, snapping into Slim Jims along the way, sticking it to the grown-ups.

Though specific sales data from that era isn’t available, these ads accomplished exactly what the brand hoped they would. The campaign not only boosted overall sales but also raised Slim Jim’s profile among teenage male consumers, a demographic that remains at the heart of its following to this day.

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Compared to the more innocent, cartoonishly mischievous ’90s mascots (lookin’ at you, Lucky the Leprechaun), Macho Man captured the attitude of the era and distilled it into a pitch for meat sticks. In 2005, five years after Savage ended his run with Slim Jim, ConAgra debuted the Fairy Snapmother, a character “resembling a tattooed rocker with wings - and a familiar MTV-type of humor young males enjoy,” as noted by a press release at the time. The WWF DNA was clearly present in the character. (Savage died in 2011 at the age of 58.)

In early 2019, ConAgra released the Savage Slim Jim, a meat stick three times the length of the Giant Slim Jim and “a carnivore’s dream come true.” Macho Man is the literal face of the product, in what feels like a fitting homage. Whether it’s a pair of out-of-touch Boomer parents or the governing body behind a nutrition label that suggests it might not be the best idea to eat an extra-extra-large Slim Jim, there will always be someone for young people to rebel against. Perhaps this is why the brand’s messaging has persisted for three decades: because conformity is something consumers are always looking for ways to snap out of.

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DISCUSSION

I used to get these in the early 80s from the grocery store. i LOVED them. I would take coals out of our habachi after a cookout and make a little cook pit in the dirt and ‘fry’ them in my boy scout mess kit frying pan. Now it is a late night tipsy grab at the convenience store on the way home form the bar.