About 18 months ago, Frito-Lay introduced a TV ad in which animated versions of Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head eat potato chips, knowing full well that it is a form of cannibalism but reveling in the guilty sin.
In the original spot, Mr. Potato Head gets home from work and can’t find his wife anywhere. He hears a strange crackle and then another. He follows the sounds until he sees his wife hiding in a room with a bag of Lay’s potato chips, munching away. She is suitably embarrassed at what amounts to an act of cannibalism, but the commercial explains that the chips are so delicious that they are irresistible. The last shot shows Mr. & Mrs. Potato Head snacking on the chips with a look of mischievous glee on their faces—they know they are doing a naughty thing, but it just doesn’t matter.
Frito-Lay is flooding the airwaves with the Potato Head cannibal spots for the holiday season. More recent spots include one in which Mr. Potato Head dons a disguise to buy enough potato chips to satisfy everyone at Times Square on New Year’s Eve and another in which the Potato Head couple hides in the bushes.
All these spots remind me of Jean-Luc Godard’s masterpiece, “Weekend,” at the end of which the main female character sucks on a bone from a stew prepared by the revolutionary who has forcibly made her his concubine. “What is it we’re eating?” she asks, to which the punky gangster answers, “Your husband.” She has the last line of the movie: “Not bad…” and then keeps gnawing on the bone.
In all the Potato Head commercials, at one point the Mrs. slowly and erotically pulls a chip from the bag, brings it to her lips and suggestively swallows it. This simple action conveys the type of irresistible sexuality that often informs transgressive acts. Moreover, it suggests that the potato chip is an upscale product to be savored like expensive dark chocolate. The sexual overtone underscores the ad’s attempt to add value to the potato chip, since the audience is used to seeing sex sell luxury products. Note, too, that the slow, sensual approach to potato-chip eating modeled by Mrs. Potato Head does not correspond to the non-stop nibbling people usually associate with the chip.
The real transgressive act committed by avid consumers of potato chips is against their own bodies. The chips have almost no nutritional value and are loaded down with salt. The ease at which one can consume a large number of chips while watching a game, or playing one, helps to implicate chips of all sorts in the obesity crisis faced by the United States and the rest of the industrialized world.
That cannibalism would serve as the stand-in to overeating junk food says a lot about the values of current American society. Eating another being of your own species is generally considered to be an abomination. Although the Potato Heads are not humans, they are stand-ins for humans with human emotions and aspirations, just like the various mice, ducks, rabbits, dogs, foxes, lions and other animals we have anthropomorphized since the beginning of recorded history. From Aesop and Wu Cheng’en to Orwell and Disney, authors have frequently used animals as stand-ins for humans in fairy tales, satires and children’s literature.
So when Mrs. Potato Head eats a potato, it’s an overt representation of cannibalism—humans eating other humans.
The advertiser is trying to make fun of transgression, to diminish the guilt that many on a diet or watching their weight might feel noshing on potato chips.
But behind the jokiness of a potato eating a potato chip stands more than the idea that it’s okay for humans to snack on chips. The implication in having a potato playing at human eating other potatoes is that we are allowed to do anything transgressive, even cannibalism—everything is okay, as long as it leads to our own pleasure. The end-game of such thinking is that our sole moral compass should be our own desires.
Thus the Lay’s Potato Head commercial expresses an extreme form of the politics of selfishness, the Reaganistic dictate that everyone should be allowed to pursue his or her own best interests without the constraint of society. Like the image of the vampire living on the blood of humans or of the “Purge” series of movies in which people are allowed any violent action one night a year, the Potato Head family eating other potatoes that have first been dried, processed, bathed in chemicals, extruded and baked symbolizes and justifies what the 1% continues to do to the rest of the population.
And it’s a happy message, too! We don’t get the sense that it’s a “dog-eat-dog world in which you have to eat or be eaten.” No, Lay’s presents the gentle Reagan version: you can do anything you like to fill your selfish desires (no matter whom it hurts).
The Mr. Potato Head cannibalism commercial offers a fable about the relationship between the haves and the have-nots, or in this case—those who eat and those who are eaten. The fabulist is interested in selling products and making consumers feel good about the process of consumption, even when it is transgressive. Some may call it an overturning of traditional morality. I call it business as usual in a post-industrial consumer society.