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Planters’ fake tragedy runs into real thing

The salty snack company was riding a wave of positive attention after killing off Mr. Peanut. And then cold reality intervened.

Mr. Peanut at the San Francisco Marathon in 2012.
Mr. Peanut prepares for his first marathon run at the Wipro San Francisco Marathon in 2012.
AP Images/File photo

Would any sane person connect the deaths of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven others in a helicopter crash Sunday — an all-too-real tragedy — with the PR stunt cooked up by Planters Peanuts: the notional death of its fictional mascot, Mr. Peanut, announced last week and set to be solemnized during the Super Bowl?

Yes, the internet is fueled by outrage. People online are incredibly touchy. But are they that incredibly touchy? The idea seems — pardon the pun — a little nuts.

But Planters — owned by Kraft Heinz, somehow co-headquartered in Chicago and Pittsburgh — obviously worried the connection would be made. So it suspended the online publicity blitz, while still planning to run a 30-second Super Bowl commercial Sunday featuring Mr. Peanut’s funeral. So toning down the publicity, out of one corner of its mouth, while blasting it to the world out of the other.

The whole campaign was a mistake. The smart, strategic route would have been to just quietly put Mr. Peanut out to pasture, the way Campbell’s Soup exiled its tomato-cheeked Kids. Ready to return when needed.

Given the genuine general public grief about this tragedy — Kobe Bryant, not Mr. Peanut — affecting not only basketball fans, but anyone saddened to see a father of four cut down in the act of being a good parent, it seems Planter’s should have shown some spine, trusted consumers, and ignored any online trolls lunging to cast Mr. Peanut’s death as an insult to Bryant’s memory.

Ironic. Mr. Peanut was designed to address public scorn, not inflate it. Since everything that could be said about Bryant is being said, I wanted to highlight something the media missed in the first days after Mr. Peanut’s demise: how Planters got an anthropomorphic peanut as a mascot in the first place. Top hat, monocle, and white gloves — kind of upscale for a comestible that at the time was considered food for swine and the poor.

Which was exactly the point. Almonds, cashews — these were fancy nuts. Peanuts weren’t nuts at all. If you’ve heard the far reaches of a theater called the “peanut gallery,” that wasn’t because kiddies were there, but poor folk, in the cheap seats, eating peanuts.

The origins of Planters are as Italian as red sauce. Amedeo Obici arrived in this country, age 12, penniless and unable to speak English — one of the indigent undesirables Trump would keep out today. He went to work at the fruit stand of an uncle in Pennsylvania. In 1896, at 19, he moved to Wilkes-Barre and went into business with a fancy peanut roaster he bought for $4.50.

That same year, one George Washington Carver collected his masters from Iowa State Agricultural College and went to work as director of agricultural research at the Tuskegee Institute. He didn’t have to look far for a relevant research topic. Farming in the South was in crisis because exclusive cotton cultivation had left fields exhausted and barren.

Carver suggested rotating crops, switching every other year from cotton, which depleted nitrogen from the soil, to legumes like soybeans and ... wait for it ... peanuts.

But once farmers started planting peanuts, what to do with them? Pigs are ravenous, but can eat only so many peanuts. So Carver started trying to figure out uses for all these peanuts — he came up with 300, including glue, paper, shoe polish, shampoo and peanut punch.

Staking his future on growing peanut popularity, in 1906, Obicci started Planters Nut & Chocolate Company. He chose the name because it sounded “dignified.”

Dignity is important when you’re selling animal feed to people.

In 1916, Planters held a mascot contest, which was won by a 14-year-old schoolboy, who drew a “little peanut person” and won $5. A company artist added the ritzy trappings — top hat, cane, monocle — to class up its new spokesman, which suddenly was everywhere: dolls, dishes, spoons, salt and pepper shakers.

I don’t have a dog in this race. While generally a fan of brand mascots — Big Boy, the Morton Salt Girl, they’re corporate demigods, like nymphs and satyrs from Greek mythology — Mr. Peanut is, excuse me, was, unforgivably ugly. Maybe instead of killing him, Planters should have ditched the top hat for a Kangol cap, the monocle for a pair of Warby Parker specs. Too late now, the damage is done. That’s the drawback of cooking up fake tragedy to hype your legume. Real tragedy has a way of swooping and taking the wind out of your sails.

Mr. Peanut, Wesley Snipes (left) and Matt Walsh in a Super Bowl ad for Planters Peanuts.
Mr. Peanut, Wesley Snipes (left) and Matt Walsh are featured in a commercial for Planters Peanuts released last week in which Mr. Peanut dies. After the death of Kobe Bryant, the company toned down its social media push, but is keeping a Super Bowl commercial.
Planters