8 min read

Marketing Our Buddy, the Faceless Corporation

Marketing of Brands Has Gone Too Far with Attempts to be Authentic
Marketing Our Buddy, the Faceless Corporation

The Death of Mr. Peanut and Authenticity

. Used under license.
Three family members enjoy watching television at home, mother and father stare with frightened expressions at screen, their small daughter stands between and smiles, eating popcorn.
Photo by Wayhome Studio, used under license through Adobe Stock.

On January 22nd, Planters posted an ad in which Wesley Snipes, Matt Walsh, and Mr. Peanut are driving along in the peanut mobile when suddenly they swerve, the peanut mobile goes off a cliff, and the three co-stars are ejected. They find themselves hundreds of feet in the air, hanging to the cliff by a root.

Mr. Peanut sacrificially lets go of the cracking root to save his friends and plummets down into the peanut mobile, which explodes. This results in Mr. Peanut’s fiery death.

The ad had over 6 million views after its first ten days. It was released in preparation for a week-long #RIPeanut ad campaign to be book-ended with a memorial service during the third quarter of the 2020 Superbowl.

However, on January 26th, a helicopter fell from the sky in Los Angeles and exploded on impact, killing all nine passengers — including professional basketball superstar Kobe Bryant.

Out of sensitivity to the national sentiment, and due to striking similarities in both the cartoon and real deaths, Planters paused the #RIPeanut campaign. Their ad on YouTube had comments turned off and, prior to their Superbowl ad, the most recent comment to their Twitter feed was from Wesley Snipes on Jan 24th (“The world has lost a great nut”).

A screenshot from the Mr. Peanut Twitter feed. Taken by author.

The Superbowl Sunday ad restarted Planters’ campaign. In it, mascots of various brands assembled at Mr. Peanut’s funeral. Mr. Kool Aid shed tears of grief, which landed on the peanut’s burial plot and, lo, a baby peanut sprouts out of the soil. Planters dubbed him “BabyNut.” He makes some dolphin sounds, laughs and says, “I’m back!” then asked for his monocle.

Cue the viral goodness! The Internet Meme factory started pumping out memes right away to seed the moment.

It seemed wholesome and fun. Until we learned that the prolific baby nut meme-generating accounts, like @babyNutLOL and @BabyNutReal, had already been created prior to the commercial being aired, one as early as September 2019.

The concept of Mr. Peanut dying to save his friends was borrowed from Avengers: Endgame, when Ironman sacrificed himself to save his friends. Why? Because when Ironman did it, the Internet responded with love and buzz.

The Planters Mr. Peanut made-for-virality campaign was not the authentic, emotional roller coaster that organically spirals up into our hearts. It was built for virality, an orchestrated program ripping off real emotional reactions to seed a moment with corporate accounts that pretended to be real people.

It was manufactured authenticity.

Baby Groot and Baby Yoda are rolling over in their cribs.

Need it be mentioned that an ad campaign shows poor taste when it makes light of tragic death, even if it is happening to an animated peanut.

How could the peanut company have known the fictitious death of their cartoon mascot would coincide with the very public fate of a global celebrity and eight others? Of course they could not. But maybe just don’t go there in the first place?

I don’t mean to be too cynical. But I do admit a little bias on my part against the anthropomorphized sales funnel. I am ill at ease with digitally awoken objects or animals shucking wares at me. What does a gecko lizard know about my car insurance needs? Why does a tiger want me to eat frosted flakes? And why do the M&Ms keep eating each other? It honestly turns me off to M&Ms. Yes, even the peanut ones.

Captain Morgan and Colonel Sanders have my attention — I see people there who make sense to me. A pirate likes rum. A southern guy in a white suit who really likes fried chicken. I get it. Even the Michelin Man has my respect. There could be a person under all those tires. A very safe, well-protected person. If pressed, I’d even go so far as add Mrs. Butterworth and a Pillsbury Dough Boy to my “safe” list.

But even I, with my unreasonable distrust of an ostrich who wants to sell me auto insurance (what is happening?), can see the need to ask, why kill a peanut? And why via a fall to a fiery death? Was the January 8th crash of Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 not a big enough hint that this campaign was leaving too much room for multitudes of blowback?

This is an ad for nuts. Planters did not need to set themselves up for having to reel in a multi-million dollar campaign out of sensitivity to the current national sentiment because no one needs to fall to a burning death to prove the point that nuts are delicious and you should buy more! It’s just … nuts.

Maybe I should lighten up. It’s an ad with a talking peanut driving a car. It’s supposed to be absurd. But, then, for better or worse, that peanut is the face of the brand. A beloved and recognized bespeckled 104-year-old peanut mascot—who Planters threw over a cliff and burned. That’s so … savage.

What’s next? Chester Cheetah meaninglessly shot in a drive-by? The mustachioed Julius Pringle arrested for cooking the accounting ledgers to hide offshore cash? Of course not. That wouldn’t be funny. It would be terrible. Right? Right?

Why tragically kill your mascot and have it reborn as the unfortunately named BabyNut ? Was it just to generate buzz? Could no one think of a better way to do that? Was the only goal to go viral for a few days? Or is there some long-term strategy behind the mayhem?

VaynerMedia created the SuperBowl spots for Planters’ in 2019 and the current 2020 campaign.

Gary Vaynerchuk, CEO of VaynerMedia, says of the Planters ad buzz, “We won SuperBowl before SuperBowl.” Call me a stickler, but in that statement, he left out the word “the.” Twice.

VaynerMedia’s strategy services page says, “And we hack culture to maximize planning for innovation in short-term.” In short term what? In the short-term? Oh, I see. This company has a thing with leaving out the word “the.”

Excellence in communicating is what they should have a thing for, not making tiny word typos-of-omission when talking about their own core offerings. Hack culture! Innovation! Short term! Their strategy is indecipherable.

This is the marketing company that Planters let throw their century-old mascot off a cliff. Which is a move that seems … indecipherable.

VaynerMedia's strategy webpage also states, “We’re always thinking about how we can create relevance for a brand in the cultural context of NOW.”

So, maybe there is no plan. Maybe it really is only about NOW.

This reminds me a lot of the TV series Lost. You may have heard of it. It starts with a huge plane crash to get lots of attention, and then kinda peters out from there. The producers never had any idea what would happen next, as was painfully clear to dedicated viewers by the time the final season rolled around. I am still looking for someone to remove my Dharma Initiative tattoo.

Ad campaigns are about getting our attention and clicks and views. Our culturally relevant, culture hacking, and contextually innovative brands are constantly working to one-up each other, using sass and snark to hand out sick burns, create buzz, and get our time. Our attention is the most valuable commodity in the digital age. Not planning, not knowing, not humanity. Just attention. Just look at this. And now this. And now this.

To get our attention, in an era of complete inattention, advertisers work to personify the faceless multinational corporations who are their clients, to make them out as super cool buddies you probably want to hang out with. Why? Because buddies, because friends, are real. And so many of us are disengaged, lost, and numb. We need something to anchor ourselves to. Something authentic.

So they drop words like Bae and Boomer and engage in Twitter smackdowns and congratulate one another on how deftly uncool the outsider is.

Screenshot from the PopTarts Twitter account. Taken by author.

Wendy’s is probably the undisputed champion of this type of social media sniping. They classically abuse the juggernaut McDonald’s.

Screenshot from the Wendy’s Twitter account. Taken by author.

Wendy’s didn’t stop with Twitter, though. They really do want to get into our living room and hang. Wendy’s went so far as to release a tabletop role-playing game a la Dungeons and Dragons, based in the mythical land of Freshtovia. Players can aid Queen Wendy in her fight against frozen beef. It has a 95 page downloadable PDF rule book and playable game guide.

. Taken by author.

Yeah, I totally want to play. While eating a square hamburger and having a frosty.

This effort to stop being a thing we consume and instead be a talking razor blade or semi-dressed jug of red drink … or a D&D campaign … who wants to chill on the couch as ever-present, authentic friends have given society the weird reality of a morning orange drink company SunnyD tweeting an expression of depression than being consoled by a MoonPie, Corn Nuts, Wikipedia, XBox, and Nutella. Then Pornhub asked if SunnyD needed “a tissue.”

Screenshot from the SunnyD Twitter account. Taken by author.

Does anything have meaning anymore?

Brands are not our friends. And despite what the Supreme Court says, corporations are not really people. Coco the Monkey just wants us to buy more round puffs of hyper-processed used-to-be corn. He doesn’t really care if we are happy, healthy, or anything, so long as we are buying more boxes of monkey rounds. They engineer authenticity and manipulate our emotions, digging in deep with massively informed and talented partners to achieve their objective.

The gurus at VaynerMedia spells it out for us: “We identify the most authentic connection between your brand and what captures people’s attention.”

That’s why they are one of the top dogs— and why BabyNut is unfortunately now a thing.

These are smart people. They seem like they are fun to hang out with. And they have the power of big data, all our behavioral patterns and clicks and visits, and all the money in the world at their disposal. And they give us … BabyNut.

Can’t we ask for more from corporations and advertising companies than the transactional guffaw in exchange for attention and clout? I don’t really want my moon pie to be an authentic bro who burns the competition. I just want it to be what it is, a cream-filled cookie that rots my teeth.