Candy Crush

Junk food companies use internet nostalgia as unpaid research and development

In June 2018, Planters posted a tweet in the voice of its mascot, Mr. Peanut: “How much would you give to try my Cheez Balls? No. Really. There’s a canister up on eBay” — along with a link to the sale. The snack had been pulled off shelves 12 years earlier and was thought to be gone forever. “Don’t toy with me, peanut peddler,” replied one user. “This is a pretty terrible tease if you’re not planning on bringing them back,” replied another. “It’s insane you stopped making them in the first place,” threatened another. The canister sold for $2,000.

Shortly after the auction, Planters announced that it was bringing Cheez Balls back for real, for a limited time — responding, it claimed, to petitions, personal letters, and other such “impassioned pleas” to bring back fans’ “most-missed cheesy snack.” Content-glut media did its due diligence to report on both the desire and its fulfillment. “Planters Cheez Balls Are the Greatest Comeback Story of 2018 (So Far)” raved Esquire. USA Today happily regurgitated the press release. People reported that an empty canister with the new, 2018 package was going for over $400 on eBay. It was reported by both the company and the press as a victory for the little man: a powerful corporation took Cheez Balls away; the people demanded them back. Through the power of persistent collective organizing — petitions on Change.org, strongly worded Facebook posts  — justice had been restored in the snack aisle. Solidarity is powerful. 

Although it may have once been considered cheap, boring, and vaguely shameful, a discontinued snack emits a strange aura

Cheez Balls are exactly what they sound like: neon-orange, salty orbs flavored with what the company’s legal department was more comfortable calling “cheez.” They were introduced by Planters around the early 1980s, back when the brand was owned by Nabisco; company reps would not confirm the exact date of birth, but they are clearly visible in a scene from the 1984 movie Sixteen Candles. In an ad from the time, a man pops a Ball directly into a woman’s mouth while she moans and leans into him. “Planters taste better,” the man says. “Rich cheese spreads around your mouth and melts.” By 2006, the market for cheese snacks was too crowded; Planters decided, according to a brand rep, to “focus on nuts.”

Although it may have once been considered cheap, boring, and vaguely shameful — a thing so whatever that you’d abandon it in the car, then throw it away when you found it again later — a discontinued snack emits a strange aura. In the same way it does for canceled TV shows or nearly forgotten movie franchises, that aura finds full expression on social media and what we used to call blogs. Redditors, amateur archivists, and listicle-writers find ample fodder from impotent yearning. One Reddit thread asking, “Which discontinued food do you miss the most?” runs to nearly 4,000 posts, with a long detour into every menu item ever discontinued by Taco Bell (Volcano Tacos, Grilled Stuft Nacho), as well as paeans to the energy drink Vault, Four Loko (original recipe), and a low-fat bacon alternative called Sizzlean, among many others. Nostalgia is a miracle berry, turning everything delicious.

“When M&M’S® fans talk, we listen,” the Mars company wrote in their press release

For food manufacturers, this longing looks like a marketing opportunity — and bringing back snacks is now a certifiable years-long trend. Everything from Clearly Canadian to French Toast Crunch to Crispy M&Ms has been brought back from the dead. And every time, the brands say, it’s due to “popular demand.” The Mars company cited “a decade of phone calls, petitions, Facebook posts and countless other pleas” when they brought back the M&Ms in 2015; “When M&M’S® fans talk, we listen,” they wrote in their press release. Similarly, the clear soda Crystal Pepsi rode back in on, Pepsi reps claimed, “a huge groundswell of support to bring it back.” When Pizza Hut brought back the P’Zone — its unholy take on the calzone — earlier this year, a rep told Forbes, “There is such a fervor for this product. The amount of emails I get asking to bring it back shows just how passionate fans are. There was even a petition on social media to bring it back a little over a year ago.” The Pizza Hut rep fails to mention how many people actually signed said petition; of those petitions still up on Change.org, none has more than 73 supporters.

But the P’Zone, as the Forbes story mentions, was an easy addition to Pizza Hut’s $5 menu, a new-old way to match the rock-bottom prices of its competitor Domino’s. When Pepsi brought back Crystal Pepsi — which had once, somehow, been marketed as a healthier, woker option — its PR team was still reeling from the consumer backlash of the year before, when it had dared to change the formula for Diet Pepsi. How convenient that it could be framed as a popular triumph instead.

When I contacted Planters to ask why it had started making Cheez Balls again, company reps said it was all due to “devoted fans begged for their return!” They cited “Lindsay C from Oaks, PA, [who] spearheaded one of the Change.Org petitions to bring Cheez Balls back in 2018,” and “Marcus A of Las Vegas, NV,” who “wrote a letter to Planters requesting we bring back Cheez Balls.” It’s true that there had been some longing: One petition, which doubled up Cheez Balls with P.B. Crisps, another discontinued Planters product, had over 800 signatures. Another, later petition had over 200, and noted the failure of the previous. (Internal critique is essential to the success of any movement.) A Facebook group called WTF happened to Planters cheese balls!!!!” had around 600 followers.

The fact that snack rival Frito-Lay has spent the last few years aggressively, and successfully, pushing Cheetos (a pop-up restaurant, a Regal Cinemas collab, every other ad in my Twitter feed) had, I’m sure, nothing to do with it.

The issue had never been taste, but availability

Look at the numbers on those Cheez Balls petitions: a few hundred signatures are not significant. But actual demand has never been the point. The petitions, the retweets, the kidding-not-kidding hashtag campaigns — the way that our engagement with brands is enshrined online provides great cover for those who just want us to buy things. Food marketing has always been about introducing an idea and trying to make us feel we can’t live without it; the difference now is that it’s really easy to find out what we’re already thinking, and then make us feel like our opinion matters. A corporation could spend thousands or millions on health-focused R&D or buying newfangled companies, or it could fall back on re-promoting the same junk food as a fast track to simpler times and a revitalized stock price. Needless to say, these items, however we might crave them, are not really good for anyone.

As soon as Cheez Balls lovers began receiving their fresh packages in July 2018, disappointment set in. “Oh my God. What was brought back as Planters Cheez Balls is NASTY!” wrote one commenter on the “WTF happened to Planters cheese balls!!!!” Facebook group. “Knew within the first handful that this was not the original recipe,” reads a one-star review on Amazon. (There are a lot of these.) “Total waste of money and total disappointment. Everything about them is wrong, from the color to the flavor.” Another is titled, simply, “Not What I Remember.”

In an email, Planters told me that the formula is exactly the same as it was the first time around. The issue had never been taste, but availability. The complaints didn’t leave a mark; this past August, Cheez Balls became a permanent addition to the line-up.

All around the world, cities are erupting in protest, with Chileans and Hong Kongers and Iraqis pushing back against those who withhold, manipulate, and control. But that most American phrase, “popular demand,” has only ever been applied to the fluff of life: the return of performers, TV shows, reconstituted corn meal. In that infamous 1971 Coke ad, a multiracial choir in caftans trilled about “what the world wants today,” an explicit cashing-in on the good vibes of third-world solidarity and non-violent protest. Today, the vocabulary of civic engagement, of internet organizing and resistance — the petitions, the letter-writing, the phone calls, and tweets — can be used to relaunch a P’Zone. It’s almost like we’re the ones who wield the power, if only as consumers. Doesn’t it feel good to be heard?

Madeline Leung Coleman is a writer and editor who lives in New York. She has written for Canadian Art, Artnet, and Aperture, among others.