Reinvention, Or the Decline of an Icon

September 10, 2007

At the end of the mid-90’s classic, “Billy Madison”, the eponymous Billy, struggling with the tools of homiletics, hermeneutics, and exegesis, astounds the crowd with a brilliant simile, comparing the industrial revolution to “The Puppy Who Lost His Way.” I must admit, both Dash and Monsignor Butwithawhimper have cribbed from Mr. Madison’s speech over the years, borrowing freely from what is really one of the foundational tropes of Western Literature. But sadly, every literary trope has its basis in reality (thanks, Yale English Department), and recently we’ve seen the full truth of this as one of the greatest cultural icons of our age, someone who represents the values of high society to the world at large, has lost his way. This once dashing figure has become a shadow of his former self, all for the sake of “reinvigorating a brand.” It’s a downfall that makes even the most surprising of Hotel Senator’s bathroom or yacht improprieties seem as routine as death, taxes, or unexpected breaks in the Yesterday’s Salad publication schedule. Yes, that’s right, I’m talking about the tragic demise of one Mr. Peanut.

According to the food network, the character of Mr. Peanut was created to help make peanuts, at the time the common folk’s snack, palatable to a more highbrow element of society. Not only has he succeeded, over the years our top-hatted, bemonocled friend has become the epitome of Gilded age decadence, only rivaled by Mr. Monopoly (ne rich “Uncle” Milburn Pennybags). Both characters have been parodied on multiple occasions for their top-drawer leanings; Mr. Monopoly, like Thomas Pynchon, can often be found on the Simpsons, usually as a foil for Mr. Burns (contra Mr. Pynchon who’s almost something of a Marge antagonist). Just take a look at the following Planters commercial from ’80s British TV. The relevant clip comes in at the 2:38 mark, but really all the commercials are brilliant.

Though the clip doesn’t feature Mr. Peanut, the his markings are all over the ad. The Planters peanut world is the world of debonair James Bond types, of stirred Martinis and betraying your country’s secrets. It’s a world of style and high-class call girls, a world where monocles are not only accepted, they’re encouraged, and lower-classes like Mr. Clean are subalternized.

So why is Mr. Peanut suddenly jumping around and dancing to3952.jpg Saturday by the Bay City Rollers? Has Mr. Peanut entered his “Temporary Secretary,” (Paul McCartney) “Computer Age,” (Neil Young) “First We Take Manhattan” (Leonard Cohen) phase, that point when a great artist suddenly realizes that time has passed him by and, in a bizarre bid to be contemporary, releases an a-typical song, usually involving a Disco beat? Even more amazingly, how did I go three years without noticing Mr. Peanut’s mid-life crisis? A little research indicates that the ad campaign was supposed to emphasize peanuts as part of a low-carb lifestyle. Our advertising overlords obviously realized that the best way to highlight the gimmick/lifestyle (low-carb) of their product was to throw in another gimmick/lifestyle (Disco…though, as I mentioned recently, see The Last Days of Disco if you can find it).

It would seem to me that the best way to reinvent a product (or anything else) would be to play-up its known characteristics. The mad men should emphasize Mr. Peanut’s wealth and stature. If a dancing Mr. Peanut was desired, wouldn’t it make more sense to portray our hero as a ballroom dancing maven, as skilled as Mario Lopez or Mr. Peterman? They should portray Mr. Peanut lounging around high-class bars, chatting up women like Aunt Jemima or Miss Chiquita Banana. At the end, a voice over artist could simply say, “Planters, for any occasion.” In short, play up who the character is already. Perhaps we can all learn from Mr. Peanut that trying to update our image doesn’t mean we have to lose sight of who we are.

(Now how’s that for a homily?)

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