This week, snack brand Planters released a dramatic video showing the apparent death of its animated mascot, Mr. Peanut.
It turns out killing off the iconic 104-year-old nut had to do with the phenomenon of how people mourn the deaths of fictional characters, such as Iron Man, according to a creative leader behind the campaign.
Kraft Heinz's Planters on Tuesday released a cryptic tweet with a link to a video showing Mr. Peanut sacrificing himself to save actors Wesley Snipes and Matt Walsh by plunging to his death. On Wednesday, the brand shared the video, which as of Thursday morning had nearly 1.5 million views on YouTube.
The spot, done with VaynerMedia, will appear before Super Bowl kickoff during the pregame show. Then, during the third quarter of the game, the brand promises to "broadcast Mr. Peanut's funeral, so the world can mourn the loss of the beloved legume together."
VaynerMedia also handled Planters' Super Bowl spot last year. Mike Pierantozzi, group creative director at Planters' agency VaynerMedia, said that put the agency in the position of needing to come up with something that would top last year. He said the agency was looking to see how Planters could really line up with culture in a way that would explode.
"We started talking about how the internet treats when someone dies — specifically, we were thinking about fictional characters, [like when] Iron Man died," Pierantozzi said, referring to the death of the Marvel character in last year's "Avengers: Endgame."
"When Iron Man died, we saw an incredible reaction on Twitter and on social media. It's such a strange phenomenon," Pierantozzi said.
Pierantozzi said with Mr. Peanut the shop wondered, "What would happen and how would the world react if he passed away?" He said the idea surfaced last summer.
"We did the unthinkable: we created a program and 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," Pierantozzi said.
Super Bowl teasers are meant to generate some buzz for a brand's in-game spot, often starting a story or introducing a theme or characters to get consumers excited before the full commercial airs. But this one seemed to be especially successful. By comparison, Hyundai's teaser on YouTube had about 73,000 views and Olay's had nearly 17,000 Thursday afternoon. Doritos, which released its teaser last week with a spoken-word rendition of "Old Town Road," has racked up nearly 4 million views on YouTube, while a teaser for Cheetos' spot with MC Hammer from last week has nearly 3 million.
"It's with heavy hearts that we confirm Mr. Peanut has passed away at 104 years old," Samantha Hess, Planters brand manager at Kraft Heinz, said in a statement. "He will be remembered as the legume who always brought people together for nutty adventures and a good time. We encourage fans to tune in to Mr. Peanut's funeral during the third quarter of the Super Bowl to celebrate his life."
Of course, some brands have gone the death route for the Super Bowl and failed, the Wall Street Journal's CMO Today pointed out Thursday morning. Nationwide's 2015 ad that showed a boy who had died and could never grow up weirded out viewers. (The company's CMO left shortly after.) And a spot now known as the "robot suicide ad" from General Motors was later changed after sparking criticism, including from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Pierantozzi said with such a serious subject, creatives have to toe a certain line and approach it with empathy. He said it needs to hit the right note between humor and solemnity.
"You have to strike the perfect tone on this, or you really could end up with a problem," he said. "So we definitely considered that. We're very happy with the response we're getting. We feel like we nailed the tone."
He said there's been positive feedback and an "outpouring of emotion" from onlookers.
Mr. Peanut's social channels have been renamed with "The Estate of Mr. Peanut" with a graphic of a crying monocle, and his Twitter account asked users to "pay respects" with the hashtag, #RIPeanut. Other brands, including Skippy peanut butter, Budweiser, Syfy, Shake Shack and more, did just that. Pierantozzi said other Kraft Heinz brands did know about the effort, but to his knowledge some of the other brands weighing in did so organically.
In terms of the parsing out of information and the phony "leak" of the Super Bowl ad that transpired on Tuesday, Pierantozzi said, "We're trying to keep this as close to reality as possible. I think we looked at Twitter and how things sometimes find their way onto Twitter, and we kind of tapped into those things." The brand then sent out a press release confirming the death.
"I think it was written beautifully and struck the right tone," Pierantozzi said.
Part of the buzz, Pierantozzi said, stems from the fact that Planters has built up Mr. Peanut so much, along with his "Nutmobile."
"I think they made it really easy for people to get involved with the idea," he said. "It was in the language of something people already understood in the world of Twitter and in the world of Facebook. It was very simple for people to get involved."
The specifics of what will happen in Planters' actual Super Bowl spot aren't clear, and conspiracy theories on Twitter are abounding. But Pierantozzi says this much is true: "There will be a funeral, and an opportunity for hundreds of millions of people who love Mr. Peanut to pay their respects," he said.