Chester's Got a Brand-New Bag
When did the Cheetos cheetah become so delightfully creepy?
The Spot:A woman washing her clothes at a Laundromat has a spat with a rude lady she encounters. Moments later, the first woman notices an animated cheetah sitting in the corner of the room—wearing sunglasses, playing chess. "Felicia," says the cheetah, "those are her whites in the dryer." He gives a knowing nod. Felicia grabs a handful of the bright orange Cheetos she's been munching and furtively smears them into the rude lady's gleaming white bedsheets. The cheetah disappears. "Join us," reads the closing text. "OrangeUnderground.com." (Click here to watch the ad.)
It's so heartening to see Chester Cheetah stretching himself for a role after all these years. Though he's long been a towering figure in the world of snack marketing, up to now Mr. Cheetah had never displayed an abundance of range. Frankly, I'd begun harboring doubts he was anything more than a two-dimensional jester.
Take, for instance, Mr. Cheetah's appearance in a recent Baked Cheetos television ad, which finds him performing a series of urban dance moves alongside a troupe of multicultural young children. The lanky physicality is there as always, and the sole line of dialogue ("Whoa, cheesy!") is delivered with the familiar, spirited growl. It's all solidly professional. But having seen this from Mr. Cheetah so many times before, the impact of this sort of performance is by now quite muted. How eager Mr. Cheetah must have been to sink his teeth into fresher, more challenging material.
Chester is no longer just an excitable Cheetos fiend. He's evolved into a complex character, one with mysteriously dark motives. Why is he prodding us to do ill to our fellow man? How did he acquire a villainous, mid-Atlantic accent? And when did he learn to play chess?
The short answer to all these questions: Chester is taking aim at a new target demographic. The impetus for the "Orange Underground" campaign was consumer research showing that it's not just kids who eat Cheetos. According to Cheetos brand manager Tyler Reeves, a full 60 percent of all Cheetos consumption is by adults. This apparently came as a surprise even to Cheetos executives.
Personally, I haven't nibbled a Cheeto in years. Though I will confess that seeing this ad gave me an urge to buy a pack—next time I'm drunk and in a convenience store. The act would satisfy a craving more for nostalgia than for corn-based snacks. So many memories. Hold on, I sense a poem brewing.
The gritty, orange fingertips of youth
pry the Cheeto from the foil bag,
lift it to the light: irradiated twig.
The flavor-burst of supercharged cheese—startling, salivary.
Lick blameless fingers bare.
Robert Riccardi, managing partner at Goodby Silverstein (the ad agency behind the new campaign), says that Chester's mischievous new personality stems from the idea that "powering down" Cheetos as an adult "feels like a nonconformist moment. You're supposed to be eating arugula dip, but you have a nonconforming desire." Thus we see Chester (Riccardi says he exists only in our deep subconscious) encouraging people to shatter all sorts of adult norms. Ruin that woman's laundry, shove Cheetos up that snoring man's nostrils, crunch a Cheeto into your co-worker's laptop keyboard, and so forth.
I'm certain there have been a few prudish complaints. You pay a price for edgy. I was assured, however, that Chester never advocates such mischief when he's talking to the kiddies. These adult-targeted ads are aired only at night on channels like TBS and Comedy Central. The spots for kids are shown during the day on Nickelodeon and the Cartoon Network.
There's also a stab at product separation—though the average viewer might not notice the difference. The nighttime Chester is hawking classic Cheetos (with all the saturated fat you can swallow). The daytime Chester is pushing newer, slightly less unhealthy variations (no doubt to comply with some sort of regulatory pressure regarding childhood nutrition).
I racked my brain but couldn't think of other spokes-characters who present different personalities to different demographic groups. Riccardi reminded me that Tony the Tiger, of Frosted Flakes fame ("They're grrrrrrrrreat!"), was a bit of a trailblazer in this regard. Tony was at first strictly for the kids but later began appearing over grown-ups' shoulders to insist that Frosted Flakes are "the taste adults have grown to love." Tony never really changed his stripes, though. He was still the same friendly, upbeat tiger—just pitching to a different audience. By contrast, Chester has fully reinvented himself with this creepy, countercultural zag.
There's also a Web component to this Orange Underground campaign. (Because there always is.) We're encouraged to devise our own Cheetos-related pranks, then post the resultant video evidence to YouTube. It seems this ploy hasn't gotten much traction and has even met with mild resistance. As one food blog writes, "Who in their right mind is actually going to go out and buy 20 bags of Cheetos to pull pranks with?" Good point. Given that these things are constructed half of air and half of cheese dust, the per-weight cost of procuring mass quantities of Cheetos must be daunting.
Grade: A-. Bizarre, moody spots that make me laugh. I love the details (the chess clock, the rapturous look on the flight attendant's face as Chester massages her, "double down"). The humor isn't really in the notion that a cartoon Cheetah wants us to act like jackasses. It's more in the atmospherics of the ads—the lack of music, the sinister tone, and, above all, Chester's cruel insouciance. Kudos on a successful rebranding of a character that had seemed destined to fade into cheesy oblivion.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.