NEW YORK - Gum seems as appealing as that sticky wad on the bottom of a shoe these days.
It's not that Americans don't ever enjoy a stick of Trident or Orbit, the two most popular brands. They just aren't as crazy about chomping away on the stuff as they once were, with U.S. sales tumbling 11 percent over the past four years.
No one in the industry can pinpoint a single factor that's causing the decline - the theories include an unwillingness to shell out $2 or more for a pack in the bad economy or that advertising veered too far from underlining gum's cavity-fighting benefits. But the biggest reason may be that people simply have more to chew on.
From designer mints to fruit chews, candy companies have invented plenty of other ways to get a sugar fix or battle bad breath and anxiety. The alternatives don't come with gum's unpleasant characteristics either, like the question of whether to spit out or gulp the remains. They're also less likely to annoy parents, co-workers or romantic interests.
"You talk to someone and they're just chomping on gum," said Matt Smith, a 46-year-old who lives Albany, N.Y. and hates gum so much he refers to it only by its first letter. "If you substitute gum for any other food, like mashed potatoes, would you find that acceptable? It's disgusting."
The gum chewing habit dates as far back as the ancient Greeks but arrived in the U.S. in its modern form in the 1860s, according to Mars Inc., the No. 1 player in the market with its Wrigley unit.
Over the years, gum makers positioned it as a way to "Kiss a Little Longer" in the famous Big Red jingle, quit smoking, curb cravings or just make the chewer happier. Catchy slogans or characters included the "Doublemint Twins" and Orbit's blonde spokeswoman who ends commercials with "Dirty mouth? Clean it up."
But gum's image as a tasteless habit also stuck, with some high-profile gum chewing only making it worse.
In 2003, Britney Spears gave an interview to CNN where a white piece of gum could be seen floating around her mouth as she fielded questions on a range of topics, including the war in Iraq.
Such imagery may be why gum is still a no-no in business meetings or first dates, according to Lizzie Post, the great-great granddaughter of etiquette expert Emily Post and co-author of "Emily Post's Etiquette."
"My grandmother used to tell me, 'You look like a cow chewing cud'," she said.
The habit so bothered author Malachy McCourt that the extremely long-shot gubernatorial candidate in 2006 told the New York Times he wanted to triple the tax on gum. The former Green Party nominee explained that he didn't like the mess it created on sidewalks and subways.
Gum's bad image is one reason that alternatives look more attractive. There's also another perennial complaint: "The flavor runs out too fast," said Ryan Furbush, a 17-year-old from Sayreville, N.J. who has stopped chewing gum in favor of chewy candies and chocolates.
Since peaking in 2009, U.S. gum sales have fallen 11 percent to $3.71 billion last year, according to market researcher Euromonitor International. That's even as overall candy sales have climbed 10 percent to $31.53 billion.
Gum makers are strategizing. Mars, which makes Big Red, Doublemint, Juicy Fruit and Orbit, is testing illuminated racks in candy aisles to make its gum and candy stand out more. The company said the racks have led to a 10 to 30 percent sales increase in tests.
And after years of slowly vanishing from shelves, Bazooka bubble gum last year relaunched its brand with new marketing and packaging.
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