Chicken McNuggets gleefully dunking themselves in sauce. Chocolates cowering, fearing for their lives. Pop Tarts springing themselves loose from a toaster and yelling "Freedom!" And last week, Chips Ahoy! reintroduced its Cookie Guy, a mischievous cookie whose antics are cut short by a human’s hand. In a certain kind of ad, these are the tragic spokesmen of snacks: living creatures aware of an impending death-chomp. Their short lives are a hell of fear or resignation.
It is worth wondering: How do ad makers decide that these characters make us laugh and want to buy snacks, rather than totally creeping us out?
"There’s been a really long history of this sort of thing," says Mark Gustafson, a director at LAIKA/house, the animation studio that produces commercials for M&Ms, Mr. Peanut, and many other walking, talking foods. "I remember the ‘Let’s go out to the lobby’ [movie theater] characters, who all seemed really delighted with the notion that someone would eat or drink them. But there’s an existential crisis at the heart of all of these characters, because they’re on the one hand trying to say, ‘Look how wonderful I am and my kind are,’ and at the same time, the implication is that they’re going to die by being chewed to death."
Anthropomorphized junk food comes in three categories. First is the dignified spokesman, like Mr. Peanut, who is separate from the rest of his ilk. "I don’t think there’s any fear in his heart that he’s going to be eaten," says LAIKA/house creative director Kirk Kelley. "But he’s perfectly happy to see all of his brothers eaten."
Next, there’s the type cursed with self-awareness—the one that knows he is food in a man-eat-food world—but embraces his place without protest. A stick of Slim Jim yells "eat me!" and a bunch of Frosted Mini-Wheats bathe in a hot bowl of milk as a murderous child blows on them. Historical characters, like this pig happily carving itself in an old print ad, are even more perversely gleeful.
And finally, there are the characters that fear their fates. These are the most complex type, the ones that cast us as the bad guys. For the creators of those characters, a major question must be answered early: How will the food face its fate without crossing the line into totally macabre?
Some companies don’t particularly like talking about this.
Consider, for example, the case of the M&M characters. Recent hits include Mr. Yellow in the trunk of a car, as a Russian mobster threatens to chop him up and sprinkle him over ice cream, and Ms. Brown taking out life insurance. Funny, sure. But the potential for creepiness is high, because the M&Ms are portrayed as the size of a small child. Were you to actually eat one of them, you couldn’t just pop it into your mouth, take a bite, and snuff out its life. You’d have to pin it down and gnaw, like a lion eating a gazelle, while the M&M’s cartoony arms and legs flap in agony.
BBDO New York created these ads, but at the request of Mars, maker of M&Ms, passed on discussing this subject. Mars also asked LAIKA/house not to talk specifically about M&Ms (which they didn’t). But Susan Credle would talk; she headed up the M&Ms team at BBDO for years, and is now chief creative officer at Leo Burnett Chicago.
The characters existed for decades, but only as Mr. Peanut-style spokescandies. "When we took them on [in 1995], we started to say, if you’re a candy and you existed in the real world, wouldn’t you be desired? And will it make better comedy? And the answer to me is yes," she says. But a few years later, the team worried it had gone too far: They made a spot in which the yellow M&M falls into Tia Carrere’s lap, then she caresses him and eats part of his head. "That was a tense moment of whether the audience would accept that or not," Credle says. "We did say, does it look like half his head is missing? We worked really hard on the art direction to make sure it didn’t look like a bloody, gory mess." (The punchline of the spot, which went over well: Mr. Yellow, with a small chunk missing from his noggin, declares that "love hurts.")
But the team did overreach in 2001, with a spot in which a toddler gets hold of an M&M and ravages it. By sheer coincidence, the ad was released at the same time as the movie Hannibal, and viewers connected the two. The spot was pulled, but Credle has no regrets: "I’ve always said you want to push storytelling to a place people didn’t expect it would go. And that requires taking some chance. One misstep is not going to hurt your brand."
Chips Ahoy! is now back to exploring those bounds. Its edible mascot, Cookie Guy, actually began life in the 1960s as Cookie Man, a human superhero with a gut and a sweet tooth. He eventually transformed into an animated cookie—one that, say, would woo a woman on a hot date, until a human hand came into frame and grabbed him. R.I.P. cookie! Now he’s back for what the brand says will be a mix of TV and digital spots. So far, Cookie Guy’s most daring move has been to venture past a door that says "No Food Allowed." How tortured will he become? Senior brand manager Tara Apisa punted: "We will engage him in our communications in a way that he "nudges conventions" in a slightly mischievous yet playful way. And, if our consumers love him so much that they want to eat him, that is great too."
But that hardly reveals the balance between funny and horrific. Consider the case of the sad Wienerschnitzel. In an ad for that brand, a beach babe and a hot dog ponder each other from afar. ("I’m consumed with you," she says. "You must catch me," he replies.) At the end, though, the hot dog realizes what consummating their relationship will mean—and runs in terror from her. Is this just a case of "loving him so much"? No. The trick, say the LAIKA/house guys, who made the ad, is to imbue the characters with enough human qualities to be relatable—but keep them oblivious enough to be easy marks. "I do think there’s some fun in, oh, jeez, you see it coming," Kelley says. "The audience sees it coming, and they’re rooting for that to happen."
Credle sees only one line not to cross: The food must always look appealing, even if it’s walking and talking and fearing for its life. "If you went too far and started conjuring up blood and guts instead of chocolate-y deliciousness, that’s when I think you’ve gone too far," she says.
That won’t be a problem for her Leo Burnett team’s latest creation, a little almond-and-vanilla guy named Al who’s voiced by William H. Macy. He’s the new spokesfood for Silk, the non-dairy milk. "To me, this character is not living in fear," she says. "He’s actually someone who’s so frustrated with people not understanding what’s good for them, and wants to educate the world on good nutrition."
Which is to say, he’s an advocate for being eaten?
"Yes," she concedes, and laughs. "Maybe because he doesn’t look exactly like the milk, you don’t realize he’s in there."
But deep down, somewhere in that nut-brain of his, Al knows.