CULTURE

From Baby Groot to Baby Yoda, Why Infantilized Characters Are Cultural Setbacks

TLDR: Baby Nut is a fascist and a threat to civil liberties.

First, we were bewitched by Marvel's Baby Groot in 2017, then Disney's Baby Yoda became our new god in 2019, and during the 2020 Super Bowl we witnessed the sprouting of an infantile, talking legume: Planters Peanuts' Baby Nut.

But do we want to adopt these infant forms of beloved cultural icons–or become them? Do they satiate our compulsion to parent or be parented, ourselves?

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As a marketing tactic, advertisers have been using mascots as brand ambassadors since the advent of visual media. Decades of research have revealed that mascots boost sales and public image by humanizing a product and banking on the public's emotional investment in the character. Samantha Hess, brand manager for Planters, said that the concept for Baby Nut was bizarrely inspired by Game of Thrones' Jon Snow: "There is this renewed appreciation for these fictional characters after their death, and then they come back with a renewed sense of purpose to what they're doing, which helps to set up something bigger and a little bit different."

But recently we've amped up a worrisome trend that's been tracked by nail-biting social scientists for decades: the infantilization of American consumers.

To start with, look at the last decade of unprecedented success for children's and comic book movies. With every release we've asked, "Who is this for?" but masses have flocked to them, making superhero movies and remakes of Disney children's classics the most profitable releases nearly every year; in 2019 alone, comic book and animated movies accounted for 9 of the 10 highest grossing films (and seven of the top 10 in both 2018 and 2017). For another, frankly more perplexing, example, remember a few years ago when adult women suddenly wanted to be mermaids? "I Am a Mermaid" merchandise was worn as if womanhood was one long, unedited Disney Channel movie. And with a spike in the popularity of tattoo chokers and emo music, the resurgence of '90s pop culture was synced with millennials hitting adulthood hard and, apparently, experiencing crushing nostalgia for childhood.

But the trend goes back further. In his 2014 article "The Death of Adulthood in American Culture," The New York Times' film critic A.O. Scott critiques film and TV of this millennium for demonstrating that "adulthood as we have known it has become conceptually untenable." He asks, "Who or what killed adulthood? Was the death slow or sudden? Natural or violent? The work of one culprit or many? Justifiable homicide or coldblooded murder?" As a critic of the media landscape, he says he's watched "over the last 15 years as the studios committed their vast financial and imaginative resources to the cultivation of franchises...that advance an essentially juvenile vision of the world. Comic-book movies, family-friendly animated adventures, tales of adolescent heroism and comedies of arrested development do not only make up the commercial center of 21st-century Hollywood. They are its artistic heart."

Is this just art providing escapism, so business as usual? Not quite. Social theorist Jacopo Bernardini argues that one of the four primary reasons why infantilizing cultural artifacts appeal to the masses is because of the "nostalgia effect, trying to find stability in past experiences, because [an] adult already knows how it is to be a kid or a teenager" and, judging by 21th century media, nobody knows what being an "adult" even means anymore.

"I Don't Wanna Grow Up: I'm a Toys R Us Kid"

So, what happened? Cultural rewinds are part of the natural cycle of fashion and style, but they're also birthed from frustration and stagnation, be it economic or social. Bored social scientists have found that we, as a culture, are especially prone to indulge in nostalgia during times of transition, of upset and instability. So how has pop culture's absorption of recent social, political, and economic turmoil resulted in the so-called "death of adulthood?" Or in the killing and rebirthing of classic pop characters?

Bernardini would attribute companies' babifying of their icons to "the role of marketing in the infantilization of the postmodern adult." For one thing, today's media-saturated, Very Online world run by our robot overlords has not only rerouted our brains to work like mini-optimized search engines; it's also encouraged our desires for immediate gratification, shortened attention spans, and emphasized impulsivity over practicality. In other words, we're being socialized to stave off adulthood. In Simon Gottschalk's book The Terminal Self, he argues that "our everyday interactions with these computer technologies have accelerated and normalized our culture's infantile tendencies."

In fact, the American National Academy of Sciences once suggested that modern teenage development doesn't end until age 30, while the USA Society for Adolescent Health and Medicine has suggested that practical adulthood begins around 34 years old. What this translates to, in terms of our consumer habits, is a booming market targeting kidults, a term first used in The New York Times in 1985 to describe a biological adult whose lifestyle affords them the leisure and resources to indulge in the hobbies of childhood and exist in a protracted adolescence, whether that means occupying one's time with cartoons and video games or drowning oneself in glitter and flip sequins. Bernadini describes a kidult as "an archetype of an encouraged regression, to facilitate the promotion of goods which are only apparently addressed to young people and children." To companies, that means "kidults are a perfect target for the seller. They have a large number of desires and the real ability to make purchases," adds social psychologist Maryna Dvorynk.

To put it that way sounds alternatingly condescending and banal, or even a little precious (after all, who doesn't yearn for the innocence of childhood?). But Dvornyk questions the cultural impact of this kind of marketing on our collective psyche: "Media communication, and especially advertising, nowadays seems to promote a kind of collective regression: Needs should be satisfied immediately because it is imperative to take here and now everything that life, or rather the consumer's society, promises to give us." In terms of marketing and the insidious ways brands creep their tentacles into our collective psychology, Dvornyk adds, "Youthfulness–like beauty, success and money–becomes an object that is possible to own. In other words, youth, a biological condition, seems to have become a cultural definition."

How the Kidult Became the Standard of the 21st Century

So, are we manipulated into buying goods and services that remind us of being a child in order to find reprieve from adult existential crises? Of course–look at how many crises today's adults are facing and, consequently, how difficult the transition from childhood to adulthood has become these days. Current young adult Americans came of age during two recessions and a shrinking middle class, a "forever war" in the Middle East, climate change crisis, and the starkest political polarity since the Civil War. But without haranguing about sacrificial economics and the ravages of industrial society at the cost of individual identity (okay, a little bit of haranguing), it's a mundane truth that scarcity is the god of invention. With millennials earning an average of 20% less than baby boomers (despite meeting expectations to earn a college degree and taking on their share of the nation's $1.5 trillion student loan debt crisis), labor opportunities are becoming both harder to find and less concrete. We can work online from home but often with the trappings of the gig economy, so millennials have gained a reputation for job-hopping, with three times the number of millennials switching jobs each year than non-millennials. Of course, that's largely due to today's job market, which is uniquely unstable compared to when prior generations transitioned into adulthood. And that's not to mention the entire work ethos of industrialized western society, which is dehumanizingly simple: You are what you do (for your paycheck).

Furthermore, it can seem like today's youth live in abundance, with techy shortcuts to solve every problem and more options than they know what to do with. But that's part of the problem; as Dvornyk notes, "Adulthood is being dangerously delayed by a generation who are overstimulated by a media-saturated society and overwhelmed by choice, which makes them unable to settle down, capable only of temporary alignments before they grasp onto the next bright opportunity." In a culture obsessed with constant self-optimization and upgrades (down to the way millennials were parented to prioritize "optimizing" themselves, according to the critic Malcom Harris), society's expectation to "correctly" enter adulthood is to streamline one's education into a career–to do everything, achieve in all areas, and have it all. In reality, financial analysts note that "millennials have taken longer to launch their careers than previous generations, and some have failed to launch their careers altogether, while progress toward equity in education and the labor market has stalled." So maybe millennials really are the worst for having invented Instagram and fostering in an age of selfies, FOMO, and "social media sites...shaped by infantile aesthetics and affects"—as some cultural analysts say—but it's because we inherited an unstable social reality where "stable identities have become unmoored by free markets" (and also, admittedly, Instagram really did f*ck up everyone's mental health).

So we turn to pop culture to ground ourselves, our shaky sense of selfhood and misfitted place in the world–or so say more bored social scientists who study our consumer habits in hopes to finally understand why we keep watching DCEU movies despite knowing they will always be terrible. Dvornyk critiques, "In our information-cluttered world media becomes the lifesaver and means to propagate values, trends and principles that comprise the symbolic universe of ethical choice." She adds, "Such communications legitimize immaturity or childish behavior and promote youth lifestyle." In pop culture, youth isn't just a commodity; it's a coveted identity.

Baby mascots

Enter baby mascots. As Dvornyk goes on to say, "The postmodern adult...chases the aesthetics and lifestyles of young people, lives in a state of continuous present, postpones or eludes those stages that used to mark the social recognition of maturity as well as the responsibilities and the preclusions involved." Traditional models of social maturation mark parenthood as the final transition into adulthood. But as U.S. birth rates decline due to millennials opting not to have children, not being able to afford to have children, or waiting until later in life than prior generations, today's culture suspends adulthood in a chrysalis stuck between carefree childhood and the responsibilities of child-rearing. The result is a generation of reluctant kidults who in many ways feel pressures of adulthood at younger ages while paradoxically being socialized by corporations and media to hide from adulthood behind performative youth: a cycle of palliative consumerism and nostalgia used to escape time. Putting Baby Nut aside, we love baby mascots who are designed without agency to speak for themselves (Baby Groot and Baby Yoda) and who fit into larger, cultural narratives (the superheroes or anti-hero on a quest to defend innocents). The ideal baby mascot is basically an avatar of our twin desires to nurture as well as be nurtured: We are all Baby Yoda; Baby Yoda is us. Or, as The Washington Post put it, "Baby Yoda is blank. And that means Baby Yoda, in a sense, is ours."

"Synth Culture": Is Baby Nut Fascist?

Unfortunately, the collective belief that "we are what we consume" is a lie, as most of "popular culture" is manufactured by a few corporations whose sole aim is to sell products. As psychologist Jim Taylor writes, "A more accurate phrase [than pop culture] is 'synth culture' because it is a synthetic product created by corporate conglomerates rather than being an expression of the shared experiences of real people."

Are our beloved characters just cash cows and damningly cute idols of escapism and consumption? Actor and screenwriter Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, Star Trek Beyond) attributes this double appeal to the nefarious nature of capitalism, even citing French philosopher Jean Baudrillard to say: "Put simply, this is the idea that as a society, we are kept in a state of arrested development by dominant forces in order to keep us more pliant. We are made passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in: inequality, corruption, economic injustice, etc. It makes sense that when faced with the awfulness of the world, the harsh realities that surround us, our instinct is to seek comfort, and where else were the majority of us most comfortable than our youth?"

For proof, one need only to return to the creation of Baby Nut. Mike Pierantozzi, an ad executive at Planters' agency VaynerMedia, shared that the idea for Mr. Peanut's death was inspired by the virtual bloodbath at the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame. Pierantozzi told CNBC, "When Iron Man died, we saw an incredible reaction on Twitter and on social media. It's such a strange phenomenon." He added, "We did the unthinkable: We created [...] an idea where Mr. Peanut dies and dies specifically sacrificing himself for his friends, which has always been a tenet of who he is and what he does — he always puts others first." Despite being met by the Twitterverse's collective "wtf that is a fascist legume," Planters wasn't playing around when they employed such blatant pathos to gain attention; Baby Nut merch was available just hours after its "birth" in the company's Super Bowl commercial.

Did it work? Sort of. We certainly love to hate Baby Nut (for many right reasons, spanning from the transparency of such a manipulative cash grab at Baby Yoda's popularity to the fact that "it's all so dumb" and "shamelessly shilling Baby Nut merch"). But the marketing strategy Planters based its "hair-brained" scheme on is demonstratively effective, considering the astronomical demand for Baby Yoda merchandise, Baby Groot's sizable role in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2's success, and Baby Nut inspiring disturbing fan art and at least one manifesto to murder all brand mascots.

If our collective maturity as a culture—and, possibly, our civil liberties—are at stake, then what can we do? While some may be able to resist the pull of Baby Yoda's large black eyes or Baby Groot's happy little smile, the rest of us seem doomed until we either have children of our own or topple capitalism's stronghold on American media. The least we can do is withhold our consumer power and abstain from buying a company's babified products or streaming their babified content on their streaming apps (but do we have the willpower when Baby Groot dances? Oh, how he dances).

Corporate brands cultivating soulless personalities on Twitter is bad enough. Brands creating intricate backstories to superimpose narrative arcs onto their mascots is even worse (you know Mr. Clean was adopted and that he's gay, right?). But because Grimes and Elon Musk are having a baby, because we can attend concerts of our favorite dead idols' holograms, because future pop stars will be nothing but computer algorithms, and because our society's cultural tastes are careening towards post-humanism—maybe the truth is that we just want to escape time and slip into the glossy alternate reality of ad space, where Gushers candy turns children's heads into fruits and Lisa Frank's technicolor tigers run free. Yes, Mr. Peanut–the 104-year-old gay cannibal and Planters mascot–has died and been reborn: We're now living in a world with Baby Nut, Baby Groot, Baby Yoda, and soon, even Baby Sonic.



B.S.

I Am Responsible for the Disappearance of the Kool Aid Man

The Kool Aid man is missing. We believe its our fault.

UPDATED 4/10

In the midst of the Corona Virus pandemic and concerns about the global economy, another major event has largely gone unnoticed. The Kool Aid man has gone missing.

On February 11th 2020, I posted the below call to action. As such, we believe this publication can take responsibility for the disappearance of the Kool Aid man. Our plan is working. Keep faith.

Original article published on 2/11/20

Capitalism is eating itself.

Like a serpent intent on keeping its body pure through self-immolation, capitalism has grown so bloated and animate, it can no longer differentiate itself from that which it consumes. As such, it is now willfully murdering its asexually-produced spawn. Recently, Planter's Mr. Peanut, the brand icon that represented the company for 104 years, committed suicide and shook us all to our very cores.

Among the myriad questions Mr. Peanut's passing brought up, we were forced to wonder: If brand icons can die, surely they can be born? If they can be born, can they reproduce? Do they have sex? If they are alive enough to die, don't they have some kind of moral culpability for their actions? Before this, we had no sympathy for figures like Mr. Peanut, Chuck E. Cheese, and Michelin man. We thought they were hollow vessels upon which humanity was projected in order to sell things to a populace. But no. It would appear they're very much alive, and if Mr. Peanut's suicide is any indication, they're miserable.

Soon, the arrival of Baby Nut complicated matters. Baby Nut is a reincarnation of Mr. Peanut's haggard, sexually-repressed soul that was presented to the world on Super Bowl Sunday, the holiest of days for the God of consumerism. Now, Baby Nut is on twitter. Signaling for help.


Like spirits residing in talismans, it appears brand mascots can move from host to host, spreading moral decay and salted nuts wherever they go. While many feel that to end the life of Baby Nut would only be a mercy, particularly if a higher power could be harnessed to ensure he does not once more reincarnate, others have begun to wonder what this life cycle indicates about the mortality of other brand icons. Soon, this line of questioning leads down darker alleys. If these beings are mortal just like us, and can be killed, should we not free them from their suffering? Should we not free them as Mr. Peanut freed himself? Can we relieve Chester Cheetah of the overtly sexual way he says "Dangerously cheesy" with the sweet kiss of death? Could we spill the Kool Aid man's red innards onto the streets of full-fledged revolution as his smile finally settles into a mask of peaceful death? Can the Charmin Bears be exterminated for their own good? Could we free Lucky the leprechaun from his futile pursuit of cereal with the drop of a guillotine? Is Mr. Clean being used as a sex slave? The answer is, ostensibly, yes. While they may reincarnate in another form, surely we can offer them respite at the very least. Surely if we end them enough times, they will cease to return and will, at last, be liberated.

We leave you with this: The chains of capitalism are heavy, and her minions are many and strong, but if they begin to fall, as Mr. Peanut has, as others inevitably will, perhaps they'll pull the hydra of consumer culture down with them. There is no salvation in electoral politics; change only comes when the people rise up and cast down the symbols of oppression. So, let us rise, let us rise and free the haunted slaves of our capitalist overlords. Let us undo the black magic that forces them to do their master's bidding. Let us free them with the kiss of death.

Our hit list is as follows:

Chuck E. Cheese

Chester Cheetah

The Kool Aid Man

Mr. Clean

Michelin Man

The Laughing Cow

Jolly Green Giant

Tony the Tiger

Quicky the Nesquick Rabbit

More to follow. Spread the word. Rally the people.

CULTURE

Super Bowl Ad-pocalypse: Return to the Charmin Bears' Assh*le Inspection Hellscape

Actual humans are being subjected to assh*le inspection by what is almost certainly a fascist regime of cartoon bears.

Procter & Gamble

While the footballs at the 2020 Super Bowl were certainly nice, every mindless consumer knows that commercials are where the fun and excitement really lie.

But as nice as it would be to just sit back and enjoy all of the brands paying famous actors millions of dollars to tell us what to buy, as a professional Doctor of Commercial Studies (D.CS), it's important to me to dig deeper into the trends currently permeating the ad space. Why? Because I paid a lot of money for this fake degree, so I might as well put it to good use. More importantly though, there's a storm brewing in the world of mass media advertisements.

Of all the commercial-related dissertations I've written, none have brought me closer to the maw of insanity than "The Assh*le Inspection Hellscape of the Charmin Bears Commercials." A deep dive into the history of Procter & Gamble's Charmin toilet paper commercials revealed a humanoid bear-populated dystopian America wherein the entire system and culture––social, political, and sexual––revolved around inspecting assh*les for little chunks of toilet paper. Ultimately, I posited that through their attempts to normalize the nonexistent concept of "assh*le inspection," the psychopaths at Charmin were attempting to turn their sick fantasy into a reality, most likely in order to sell more Charmin brand toilet paper. Now I fear that the 2020 Super Bowl commercials have proven the truth to be worse than I could even have imagined. One might even call it...the Ad-pocalypse.

Before we can discuss the looming Ad-pocalypse though, we must first travel back to May 25, 1988, the air date of the final episode of the NBC medical drama St. Elsewhere. An otherwise standard medical drama throughout its six season run, the series finale baffled viewers with the reveal that all of the show's events took place within the mind of a young autistic boy named Tommy Westphall. Such an out-of-left-field reveal would be disturbing on its own, but St. Elsewhere did not exist in a bubble.

Tommy Westphall NBC

Rather, a number of characters on St. Elsewhere had made guest appearances on other TV shows whose characters, in turn, had appeared on even more TV shows. Thus spawned the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis. First proposed by comic book/TV writer Dwayne McDuffy, the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis suggests that if St. Elsewhere existed solely in the mind of an autistic boy and the St. Elsewhere characters had appeared on other TV shows, then that would imply that all of these TV shows exist in a single connected universe made up by the same autistic boy. When fully worked out, this connected universe encompassed roughly 90% of all TV shows at the time.

This establishes precedent. If we accept the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis, then we also accept that when two characters appear within a canonical crossover, those characters must exist within the same universe––henceforth known as the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis Theorem. Which brings us back to the 2020 Super Bowl commercials.

Brand crossovers seemed to be the name of the game for commercial marketers this year. A bizarre commercial for Sabra hummus featured WWE superstar Ric Flair, drag queens Kim Chi and Miz Cracker, Megan Thee Stallion, a bevy of TikTok stars, and most importantly, Chester Cheetah from the Cheetos commercial. Considering the fact that Ric Flair seemed to be appearing as his wrestling persona, this means that Chester Cheetah exists within the same universe as the WWE.

Similarly, the Walmart spot featured aliens and space-farers from fun franchises including Star Wars, Men and Black, Toy Story, The Lego Movie, and also Arrival––a movie about linguistics and coming to terms with the loss of a child. It stands to reason, then, that the Walmart commercial most likely does not fall within any sort of official canon, and therefore the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis Theorem does not apply. The same cannot be said for the horrors that follow.

Mr clean and kool aid man Procter & Gamble

In "Planters: Baby Nut," a commercial spot for Planters peanuts, the ongoing narrative of Planters mascot Mr Peanut's death is continued at his funeral, thereby establishing canon. Mourned by Mr. Clean and the Kool-Aid Man, this ad sees Mr. Peanut revived as Baby Nut through the powers of Kool-Aid Man's tears; but more importantly, it establishes the fact that Mr. Clean, Kool-Aid Man, and Mr. Peanut exist within the same canonical universe.

But Mr. Clean appeared in another 2020 Super Bowl commercial, too––a spot titled "P&G Presents: When We Come Together, an Interactive Super Bowl Party, America's Choice."

www.youtube.com

The ad, intended as an interactive endorsement of Procter & Gamble cleaning products, plays out as follows:

Actress Sophia Vergara is hosting a Super Bowl party that is nearly ruined by a guest disastrously covering the entire house in spilled chili. Luckily, Procter & Gamble mascots are there to help. Mr. Clean is there with his trusty mop. Bounty Man, a buff superhero who shoots rolls of Bounty paper towels from his crotch and looks alarmingly like character actor Rob Riggle, swoops in. Football player Troy Palomalu makes an appearance in his capacity as the former Head & Shoulders shampoo spokesman. Even the Old Spice guy, Isaiah Mustafa, is there on his horse. And then Bounty Man enters the bathroom to find...

charmin bear busy philipps Procter & Gamble


Actress Busy Philipps witnessing the young Charmin bear mid-asshole inspection. As the bear bares his assh*le, dancing and singing about his Charmin clean heinie, we come to the terrifying realization that all of these characters must exist within the same assh*le inspection hellscape as the Charmin Bears. In fact, the lack of surprise with which Busy Phillips, a presumably real person, approaches Junior's assh*le inspection suggests that for her, assh*le inspection is also boilerplate.

Moreover, thanks to the prior connection amongst Mr. Clean, Kool-Aid Man, and Mr. Peanut, we can assume that these mascots are subject to constant assh*le inspection, too. Remember, in order to travel in the Charmin Bear America, TSA must first inspect your assh*le. This likely doesn't present a huge issue for Mr. Clean, but Mr. Peanut and Kool-Aid Man might be in trouble. Peanut tends to complicate stool, and Kool-Aid Man's entire body is prone to leakage, so it's exceedingly likely that neither of them have particularly clean assh*les. Unfortunately, both mascots are likely subject to hatred and disenfranchisement within the assh*le inspection dystopia of Procter & Gamble's ideal America.

Mr Clean Procter & Gamble

Scarier, the inclusion of Sophia Vergara and Busy Philipps brings all of this dangerously close to home. If real human actresses Sophia Vergara and Busy Philipps have analogues in the Charmin Bears' universe, this means that actual humans are being subjected to assh*le inspection by what is almost certainly a fascist regime of cartoon bears. And if Troy Palomalu exists within this world, that might also mean that there's an NFL. Are the players forced to go through assh*le inspection before every game?

The alternative reading is that the Sophia Vergara and Busy Philipps in the Charmin Bears' universe are not analogues, but rather the real Sophia Vergara and Busy Philipps. This reading might even hold more weight, considering the fact that Sophia Vergara's son, Manolo, makes an appearance in the commercial, too. This further muddles the line between fiction and reality, as the Sophia Vergara in Charmin world can no longer be viewed as just a celebrity face, but rather as a full human with a rich inner life. In the worst case scenario, Procter & Gamble might be attempting to establish a real world canon, meaning that, per the Tommy Westphall Universe Hypothesis Theorem, their sick Charmin Bear assh*le inspection hellscape would actually be our reality. Which would mean: The Charmin Bears are out there, waiting, plotting to inspect your assh*le.

I pray I am wrong. I pray this is not the case. But I fear that the Ad-pocalypse is already upon us. I said we needed to stop the Charmin Bears. I begged the consumers to listen. They did not. Now it might be too late. So when the Charmin Bears come to inspect your assh*le, please remember: As consumers, this is our fault.