Anyone who imagines marketing is not a serious pursuit should consider the case of Mr Peanut, which is currently exercising some of America’s keenest intellects. It is a story of class prejudice, victimhood and the constant search for the inner self.
Mr Peanut is the character who symbolises Planters products. He owes his origin to a drawing by a Virginia schoolboy, Anthony Gentile, who won a five-dollar prize in a contest in 1916 with his “little peanut person”.
Back in 1916 there was no shame attached to being a toff. Mr Peanut has a top hat, carries a cane and wears a monocle. He is, in short, the very embodiment of all that today’s Labour backbenchers find abhorrent. Mr Peanut looks as though he may be no stranger to the hunting saddle. He gives every appearance of being idle, rich and self-indulgent at the expense of the working classes, particularly those who toil in the peanut fields of America.
Ironically, he has become the subject of controversy because an attempt is being made to make him work for a living. In a campaign by Foote Cone & Belding (FCB) in New York, Mr Peanut has become active and demotic. He is shown playing basketball, taking to the dance floor, posing “centerfold-style” to promote his products as low in carbohydrates, and looking back wistfully on his days as an infant pulse.
Now you might think that in the age of the common man this attempt to bring a dandy down to earth would be welcomed.
But no. According to David Altschul, president of Character, a consulting company in Portland, Oregon, that specialises in brand characters, Mr Peanut’s attempts to portray himself as a regular kind of guy may be mistaken. “When a character with that kind of longevity is such a part of the cultural landscape, the question becomes, are you building a story meaningful to the brand?” asks Mr Altschul. “And if you make him a living character, what is he trying to accomplish.”
In a country as given to earnest introspection and self-analysis as the US, this is a serious question. After all, it is one thing to breathe life into Mr Peanut, quite another to challenge him in ways that might harm his self-esteem or cause him offence.
Barbara Lippert, an advertising critic writing for Adweek and once a contributor to this magazine, gives voice to these concerns. She says Mr Peanut was “put through some embarrassing paces” in the television advertisements that showed him dancing. However, she admired a commercial in which he watched home movies and reminisced about his infanthood.
One can see, as they say, where she is coming from. After years of doing nothing for a living, it is challenging to be asked to dance expertly, but we can all empathise with a character who watches videos and suffers from maudlin nostalgia.
The democratisation of Mr Peanut was not taken lightly. Rich Keller, brand director of Planters at the salted snacks division of Kraft Foods, says, “We’re not changing who he is. He’s sticking with the top hat, the monocle and the cane. But we want to contemporise him in a way that will engage consumers.” The goal, he adds, is to keep Mr Peanut as “a sophisticated icon” while also making him “fun, social, popular, entertaining and friendly” as part of an effort to convince snackers that Planters is “no ordinary nut, it’s good for any occasion.”
Ms Sandy Greenberg, a copywriter, executive vice-president, and group creative director at FCB (she has more handles than a fitted wardrobe), defends the decision to make Mr Peanut work. “We haven’t done anything faddish or trendy. Dancing is classic; watching home movies is classic; playing basketball is classic.”
Strange to think that here in the UK, once the home of more toffs than you could shake a silver-topped cane at, we feel more comfortable with the age of the common man than do Americans. Our vulgarity is far richer, more earthy and heartfelt, and unashamed.
We would have no difficulty in seeing Mr Peanut shave his head, wear a ring in his ear, scratch his belly and belch loudly. That is the English way. For us, binge drinking is classic; swearing incontinently is classic; rioting at football matches is classic.
We are not, however, without our softer, caring side, and, strange to relate, salted peanuts rank highly among our day-to-day concerns. Some people are allergic to nuts, salt is known to be bad for us and snack food lies at the heart of the obesity-time bomb- epidemic killer plague sweeping the nation.
Sadly, therefore, on this side of the Atlantic Mr Peanut may have shed one form of unacceptability only to clothe himself in another. No longer a toff, he may well be a symbol of something far more frightening.
Years ago, we had our own equivalent of Mr Peanut in the square shape of Mr Cube, a genial sugar lump. Is he still around, I wonder? I haven’t seen him for such a long time. Sadly, should the old boy surface, he would be unwelcome in today’s Britain, be he never so foul-mouthed and coarse.
For, just as the poet sees a whole world in a grain of sand, we look upon a grain of sugar and see death.