Mr. Peanut waves to the adoring masses at the 88th Annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. | Photo by Ben Hider/Getty Images
The Super Bowl has always been the epicenter for dumb stunt advertising, and the internet only makes it worse
On January 22, 2020, the cane-swinging, top hat-wearing, possibly gay capitalist known as Mr. Peanut was pronounced dead by Planters on Twitter. “We’re devastated to confirm that Mr. Peanut is gone,” wrote the nut brand, which has been synonymous with the iconic legume since 1916. “He died doing what he did best – having people’s backs when they needed him most.”
It is with heavy hearts that we confirm that Mr. Peanut has died at 104. In the ultimate selfless act, he sacrificed himself to save his friends when they needed him most. Please pay your respects with #RIPeanut pic.twitter.com/VFnEFod4Zp
— The Estate of Mr. Peanut (@MrPeanut) January 22, 2020
How exactly did the monocled figurehead die? In a 30-second Super Bowl pregame ad, Mr. Peanut is shown cruising down a mountain road in his Nutmobile with Wesley Snipes and Veep’s Matt Walsh. To avoid hitting an armadillo, the vehicle swerves and nosedives off a cliff, leaving all three passengers holding onto a branch for dear life. The branch threatens to snap under their weight, until Mr. Peanut sacrifices himself and lets go, falling into the canyon and presumably to his death. His funeral, according to a press release that also encourages fans to eulogize the legume on social media using the hashtag #RIPeanut, was originally set to be broadcast in a Super Bowl spot this Sunday, before the brand paused the plan — and then recommitted to it — in the wake of the deaths of Kobe Bryant, his daughter, and several others in a helicopter crash over the weekend.
The calculated demise of Mr. Peanut felt like a wild, but not totally unforeseen, ending for a 104-year-old mascot who spent much of last year tweeting things like “Silent nut. Holy nut.” and whatever this is. Users reacted with dank glee and horniness; countless jokes and memes propelled it into a trending topic; and, of course, seemingly every other corporate account in existence responded to the news in character, unleashing an orgy of human-aping Brand Twitter of a magnitude that has rarely been seen before.
We, too, would sacrifice it all for the nut #RIPeanut (a real one).
— SNICKERS (@SNICKERS) January 22, 2020
No, he’s dead. Thank you for checking in though. https://t.co/uZNNHEMZXl
— The Estate of Mr. Peanut (@MrPeanut) January 22, 2020
It’s fitting that Planters’ marketing coup was tied to Super Bowl, arguably the ground zero of over-the-top brand stunts. Long before brands started getting attention for appropriating millennial depression and peeing in jars, they competed to make the most memorable Super Bowl commercials, striving for just the right alchemical mixture of humor, celebrity, self-awareness, feel-good messaging, and more to become the ad with the biggest watercooler buzz the next day. At its peak, the Super Bowl reached a viewership of 114.4 million in 2015. Although ratings have fallen since then, it still remains one of the most-watched television events of the year.
But in today’s fragmented media environment, with so many other screens demanding consumers’ attention, it’s become critical to rethink the traditional TV spot so that it has legs on social media, especially if advertisers hope to get a good return on the behemoth cost of airing an ad during the Super Bowl (in 2020, that price tag is $5.5 million for 30 seconds).
“It used to be, ‘We need a Super Bowl spot.’ Then, it was, ‘We need a Super Bowl spot and program,’” advertising executive Mark DiMassimo told Billboard in 2017. “Now, it’s, ‘We need a Super Bowl stunt or event.’ It needs to be newsworthy, social and surprising — and it needs to be much bigger than 30 seconds.”
Enter: the pre-pre-pregame ad, released days before Super Bowl Sunday. Before Volkswagen’s “The Force” ad — which Time called “the ad that changed Super Bowl commercials forever” — in 2011, it was conventional wisdom to keep commercials under wraps until the game. Now, it’s common for brands to tease or outright unveil their ads early in hopes of going viral and commanding attention well before kickoff.
The Super Bowl’s convergence with social media — and Twitter, in particular, as the platform most suited for millions of users to experience the same event simultaneously — hit another milestone in 2013, when Oreo capitalized on an unexpected blackout with a viral tweet so appropriately opportunistic, it has its own oral history. “By now the cringey meme-seeking of Big Brand Twitter is so familiar that we’d probably just scroll by, but at the time, this was a headline-worthy move — one taken as an early sign that the sun might be setting on the supremacy of that primest of prime-time TV spots,” Emma Grey Ellis wrote for Wired.
From there, the meme-minded ads and stunts just kept coming, especially from food and drink brands, which “have a little more leeway to be entertainment-driven,” as ad executive Dan Granger told Vox in 2019. Much of the escalation seems to have crystallized in 2017, the same year that brands as personas became “an internet-wide meme,” according to Steak-umm social media manager Nate Auerbach wrote for Vulture last year. Super Bowl LI had Wendy’s debut Super Bowl spot, which translated the fast-food chain’s shittalking Twitter persona to the big screen with a dig at frozen beef; the first-ever live commercial, featuring Adam Driver and Snickers; and, although not a food brand, an encapsulation of Brand Twitter’s hallmark trait of horniness in the form of a sexy Mr. Clean ad. That year also saw a stunt tailor-made for headlines: Kraft Heinz gave its office workers the day off after the Super Bowl, and launched an online petition to make that Monday a national holiday (tragically, the petition only procured 70,000 signatures out of the goal of 100,000).
In 2018, the ethos of public beefing continued with brand feuds — Wendy’s vs. McDonald’s, Martha Stewart vs. Jack in the Box — that drew inspiration from or spilled over onto social media. In 2019, brand shenanigans got even wilder, with a far-ranging buffet of antics that included an iconically cringeworthy Kraft Heinz/Devour Foods ad about “frozen food porn”:
Skittles’ Broadway musical, directed and scored by actual professionals, and performed by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall for a real audience, in lieu of a paid Super Bowl spot:
This year’s lineup of Super Bowl ads features plenty of familiar names: Cheetos and MC Hammer; Pop-Tarts and Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness; Doritos and Sam Elliott, Billy Ray Cyrus, and meme lord Lil Nas X himself. But so far, it’s Planters’ offing of Mr. Peanut that best embodies where brand marketing and social media intersect today: weird, disingenuously humanized, just this side of depraved.
Even more zeitgeisty is that the internet’s quasi-lust–murder fascination with Mr. Peanut — the basis of the collective schadenfreude that has garnered Planters millions of impressions and press from every publication under the sun — was originally most vocally articulated by a comedian, Luke Taylor, who was banned from Twitter for threatening to kill the anthropomorphized legume. How very 2020 that a massive food conglomerate stood to benefit from a joke that was apparently seen as so untoward when directed at a corporate brand, it was forcibly excised from the company’s mentions.
Building a multimillion-dollar ad campaign off of death was always a risky endeavor — one that threatened to fall apart in the face of real tragedy. That’s the thing about these brand stunts that leaves such a bad taste in the mouth: the novelty is in watching these inanimate, two-dimensional brands open their mouths and convince us to see the humanity in them, humor and ennui and all. But to be truly human is to be confronted with the knowledge of your own mortality; to live is to eventually die. When the world collectively loses a real person — especially one whose life and legacy are being mourned and grappled with by millions — that’s when we’re reminded of what it really means to be human.