The Death (and Resurrection) of Mr. Peanut: A Case Study
How Advertising and Culture are Integrated
The interplay of advertising and our cultural climate is not a new concept — brands have always adapted their marketing strategies to fit what’s relevant in society. Sometimes they really hit the nail on the head, like Gilette’s 2019 “The Best a Man Can Get” ad, which paid homage to the #MeToo movement and portrays touching scenes about the way men are raised.
Other times, however, they really, really miss the point.
Take Pepsi’s 2017 ad of a street protest, a fast-and-loose nod to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. (Who could forget this PR nightmare?) The commercial featured supermodel Kendall Jenner handing a Pepsi to a cop and subsequently diffusing any tension between the police and protesters, suggesting that sharing a soda is the answer to all of the issues at hand. The ad depicts very vague posters painted with peace signs and hearts, softening the imagery of a protest and managing to offend many groups of people while not actually standing for anything.
The latest example of advertising mirroring the cultural climate is the death of Mr. Peanut, the mascot for Planters. The commercial, which was intended for Super Bowl LIV, shows Mr. Peanut, Matt Walsh, and Wesley Snipes getting into a peanutmobile crash that results in Mr. Peanut sacrificing himself to save his friends.
Mr. Peanut’s Demise and Initial Reactions
Mike Pierantozzi of VaynerMedia, the agency who came up with the idea for this ad, claimed they were inspired by the world’s reaction to the death of Iron Man in 2019’s Avengers: Endgame (spoiler alert!), which made $2.79 billion in the worldwide box office. The Marvel movie was undoubtedly one of the most culturally important events of the year, with over 100 million people going to see it during its opening weekend. “When Iron Man died, we saw an incredible reaction on Twitter and on social media. It’s such a strange phenomenon… We did the unthinkable: we created a program and an idea where Mr. Peanut dies, and dies specifically sacrificing himself for his friends, which has always been a tenet of who he is and what he does — he always puts others first.”
Hoping to capitalize on the success of Endgame by emulating its main arc, ad execs came up with the idea to kill off Planters’ 104-year-old mascot. But whether or not Mr. Peanut was inspired by Iron Man’s sacrifice (or perhaps from his time served in the U.S. army?) isn’t really the point. The real reason they concocted this ad was for shock value — audiences were surprised, but mostly confused, by the sudden and gruesome death of the character.
The initial reactions to the news ranged from people upset at a so-called “tone deaf” vibe to fellow snack brands paying their respects to a fallen friend.
Regardless of the reactions, #RIPeanut was trending worldwide on Twitter within minutes, creating more hype around the PR stunt. Audiences immediately began questioning the fate of the character, generating theories that he would resurrect in part two of the commercial, which also aired during Super Bowl LIV. (Can they resurrect Iron Man, please?)
The Impact of Controversial Ads
Maybe the death of Mr. Peanut was less impactful than Iron Man’s, but nevertheless, shock value pays off. We know this. When was the last time you heard anyone discussing Planters peanuts before this ad dropped? Controversy breeds discussion — there’s a reason people say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. For example, when Nike debuted their ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, a former NFL quarterback who lost his career over his police brutality protests, many people deemed the company to be just as anti-American as they believed him to be. #JustBurnIt, a play on their famous slogan “Just Do It”, started to trend on Twitter, while people lit their Nike gear on fire to boycott the athletic brand for partnering with the QB, a movement you’d think would have significantly hurt their brand. Joke’s on everyone who burned their hundred-dollar sneakers, though, because Nike’s online sales grew by 31% after casting Kaepernick — proving that taking risks can definitely pay off sometimes.
So will people end up running out to buy the nearest pack of peanuts, as they did with Nikes? Do the rewards outweigh the risks?
It’s hard to know for sure, or at least it would have been. Portraying the death of a cultural icon may have been a genius advertising tactic, that is if it hadn’t coincided with the death of an actual cultural icon, Kobe Bryant.
The news of Bryant’s death was reported on Sunday, January 26th, just four days after the release of the Planters ad. Seeing #RIPeanut trending next to #RIPKobe left a bad taste in the mouths of many, so the snack company pulled the ad out of respect to the basketball legend and those mourning his loss.
It’s safe to say the tone surrounding Peanut’s death was less than favorable at that moment.
Planters, however, announced that the campaign would continue as planned during the Super Bowl — losing a couple of weeks of running the ad on TV may have been justifiable, but missing their game time slot was out of the question. The Super Bowl is the biggest advertising (and football) event of the year, and securing ad space during the game is no small feat. According to Ad Age, a 30-second commercial costs more than $5 million, so there’s no way Planters would miss the opportunity. It’s pretty obvious why brands justifying shelling out the big bucks for the air time — 2019’s Super Bowl had the lowest number of viewers in 11 years and still clocked in at around 98.2 million people. The exposure that comes with having commercials play during this event is well worth the price tag, but why did Planters drop the ad nearly two weeks beforehand?
The Super Bowl Redemption Arc More Powerful Than The Chiefs’
In recent years, companies have started posting their Super Bowl commercials prior to the game to test the waters and create added hype surrounding them. When someone sees a funny ad, they may tell their friends to watch out for it specifically, which increases the amount of attention paid.
This move paid off. Everyone had their eyes glued to the screen awaiting the fate of the mascot. In part two of the ad, viewers were shown a funeral scene with Wesley Snipes delivering a eulogy for the peanut who saved his life. The service was attended by some pretty famous faces including Mr. Clean, the Oscar Mayer Wiener, and the most important guest of all, the Kool-Aid Man — whose falling tears apparently have resurrecting powers. A falling tear landed on the plot and, like a phoenix rising from the ashes, #BabyNut was reborn.
In the era of Baby Yoda and Baby Groot (perhaps another nod to Marvel?), they have obviously thrown their hat in the ring of really, really adorable CGI characters that are stealing the hearts of people everywhere. The new baby version of Mr. Peanut is a smaller, cuter adaptation of the classic mascot, signaling an era of rebirth and revitalization for the Planters brand. They were quick to capitalize off the #BabyNut reveal by putting out a line of merchandise featuring the new character ranging from beer glasses to phone cases to onesies for your very own baby nut. This is a pretty genius move — Mars Studio states that companies with promotional products gain an 85% increase in positive brand image in the eyes of their consumers. Having people walk around with your product on their t-shirt is free exposure, increasing brand recognition long after the commercials stop airing.
Raising the (Snack) Bar
Though the campaign was met with mixed emotions, we think the death and resurrection of Mr. Peanut was a smart move by Planters — the interest in the topic skyrocketed from 0 to 100 on Google Trends when the initial ad was released, giving it the mascot more buzz than any other time in the last 12 months. As we talked about earlier, there is no such thing as bad publicity; the purpose of the commercial was to get people talking about Planters, and it worked.
It will be interesting to see how other brands react to this campaign. Will we see more mascot scandals in the future? Will Tony the Tiger ever admit that Frosted Flakes are just okay? We’d say more shocking character developments and commercial plotlines are pretty likely following the success of the Planters rollout, and we’re excited to see what happens!