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Watch Your Mouth: Candy O’Clock

Did daylight savings time change at the behest of the candy lobby?

When American kids prowl the streets next week in search of tiny Tootsie Rolls, baby Baby Ruths, and other child-sized, brand-name treats, they’ll probably set off before the sun sets. Trick-or-treaters can venture out in daylight hours thanks to the work of Congress, which extended Daylight Saving Time four years ago in part to mediate the dangers of night-time trick-or-treating. The move inspired its own urban legend: This was a concerted effort by food marketing lobbyists to reshape time, and stick more candies into kids’ hands.

Deliberately making “clock time" out of sync with “sun time” used to be the stuff of social and scientific satire. In 1784, Benjamin Franklin wrote that burning candles all night would afford Paris a great “savings.” By the 20th century, though, the United States took the issue seriously, enacting temporary changes during World Wars I and II in an effort to save precious resources. Capitalists took notice. The petroleum industry lobbied to reintroduce the shift permanently, but farmers opposed the measure: They wanted neither to lose an hour of early morning light nor mess up their herd’s regular milking times. Petroleum won. Daylight Savings Time took effect in 1966 as part of the Uniform Time Act. It was six months long.

By the mid-1980s, six months wasn’t long enough. A Washington tax lobbyist named James Benfield began a campaign to extend Daylight Saving Time. His “hobby lobby” drew support from the National Association of Convenience Stores, the International Association of Amusement Parks and Attractions, and the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. Shifting daylight one hour later means more light in the late spring and early fall for after-school and after-work leisure activities, and that means more time for gassing up, driving to the ballpark, and hitting the driving range. Paper-plates manufacturers, lighter-fluid makers, plant nurseries, and service stations anticipated a $4 billion windfall from the extended daylight hours.

More daylight also means more time to chow down. Hardee’s Restaurants estimated that it would record an additional $7.1 million in sales, betting its customers were more likely to eat breakfast in the dark than partake in a darkened drive-thru dinner. And Americans would cook more barbecues and snack up at 7-Elevens if they could see that there were really no scary predators lurking in the dark. “The money in food sales is real,” says Michael Downing, the author of Spring Forward: The Annual Madness of Daylight Saving Time. “Daylight saving really does change our behavior.”

Candy’s role in the time change is less clear. The National Confectioners Association reportedly handed out candy-filled pumpkins to Congress members in 1986. But when legislators moved the clocks ahead three weeks in 1987, they did not bow to the candy lobby’s efforts, and long evenings extended only to the last Sunday in October.

By 2000, though, the rural-urban demographic had switched: That year, more people lived on golf courses than on farms. Fewer and fewer Americans toiled at milking machines or collected eggs for market in the dark. So when Congress settled on another time change in 2005—again under the guise of energy savings—few opposed the expansion of Daylight Saving Time to eight months. This time, Halloween fell squarely within the extended daylight hours.

Candy lobbyists claimed to have nothing to do with it. “We’re not even sure it would be good for our industry,” Lawrence T. Graham, the head of the National Confectioners Association, told The New York Times. Halloween accounts for about 8 percent of annual candy sales—$2.3 billion of the $29.4 billion, association spokesperson Susan Whiteside says. But as Graham told the Toronto Star, “The two most important things for us are day of the week and the weather, and neither one of those we can change.”

So Halloween candy may be only chump change in the drive for what should probably be renamed Daylight Spending Time. After all, we’re not using that time to sleep an extra hour; we are doing what the proponents intended—driving around, buying stuff after work. “It’s not a conspiracy. It’s been a very successful lobbying effort to eke some more money out for a very particular industry,” Downing says. “Does it save energy? No. Does it serve the national interest? Well, that’s a tossup. What’s the national interest?”

You decide: Trick or treat?

Photo courtesy of Natalie Conn

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