So now Miracle Whip is mayonnaise for hipsters?

Advertising deconstructed.
Sept. 21 2009 10:02 AM

That Mayonnaise Has Attitude!

Miracle Whip's hipster ad campaign is risible—and oddly effective.

The Spot:A low, ominous note sounds. Driving drums kick in. "Don't go unnoticed," says a voice-over announcer. "Don't blend in." We see a group of young people dancing on a rooftop. A woman saunters toward the camera with a rock-star pout. "We are Miracle Whip," declares the announcer, "and we will not tone it down."

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Look at those saturated colors, at the jittery scrawl of that superimposed text. Listen to the flat, aggressive voice of the announcer, whose vocal cords sound as though they're encrusted in two days of stubble and a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers. The evil, bending buzz that opens the ad—the song is "High School Hoodlum," by the New Zealand band The Datsuns—makes it clear from the get-go that this product is launching an angry assault on our attentions.

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Which seems out of character for a sandwich spread. Or, for that matter, a salad dressing. (It's my vague understanding that Miracle Whip is both.) In fact, I'm not sure we've ever seen a condiment ad with quite this much 'tude.

Previous mayonnaise commercials (yes, I know, the unclassifiable Whip isn't technically mayo) often centered on the image of a knife spreading dollops of off-white goop across an expectant slice of bread. The setting is typically the family kitchen. We see dad reach into the fridge for turkey-club fixin's or mom lovingly prepare BLTs for the kids. In the 1980s, Miracle Whip ads always seemed to involve a middle-aged man's thwarted late-night sandwich craving.

This new campaign, according to brand manager Justin Parnell, is an effort to reintroduce Miracle Whip to the 18-34 year-old demographic. "Our research showed that younger consumers had grown up with Miracle Whip, but that it had fallen off their radar," says Parnell. "Our buyers were tending to skew older. This is an opportunity to reinvent the brand."

How is Miracle Whip positioning itself to appeal to this younger generation? Plenty of aesthetic nuances—the rooftop context, the music—signal that this isn't some plain old fuddy-duddy sandwich lubricant. There are no grandparents in sight, and almost no children. The copy—in another of the campaign's spots—doesn't mention turkey clubs but does refer to "paninis" and "crostinis."

But beyond the hip signifiers, the overarching message here is that a condiment can be a means of self-expression. "Don't be ordinary, boring, or bland," the roguish announcer commands us. He's dissing the allegedly tamer taste of competing products. But he's also flattering the ego of the Miracle Whip consumer.

Is there really anyone out there who feels she's saying something vital about herself—what kind of person she is, her hopes and dreams—by choosing Miracle Whip over Hellman's? I suspect we mostly buy staples like this based on taste, price, and nutritional information. Perhaps we feel nostalgia for what Mom used to put on the potato salad. But this campaign is playing on the opposite of nostalgia.

Interestingly, Miracle Whip has plenty of ammunition to run a more traditional, nuts-and-bolts campaign. According to Parnell, it has half the fat and calories of a regular mayonnaise. Given the calorie-obsessed era we live in, I was surprised these attributes didn't warrant a single mention in the TV ads. Maybe the younger audience targeted here doesn't care as much about fat content. (Or maybe it's a regional thing: Parnell says the ads are broadcast more often in the Midwest, which is Miracle Whip's key market. Could it be that flyover country isn't as concerned with calorie counts as it is with tangy deliciousness?)

I'm not entirely convinced that Miracle Whip's gambit—egg-based dressing as emblem of badass individualism—will win over the Millennials the campaign is trying to reach. But if the goal is simply to get the brand back on younger people's "radar," as Parnell claims, I think it's probably a mild success. The combination of an edgier soundtrack, some eye-grabbing visuals, and an attractive cast of actors will probably hold younger viewers' attention long enough that they'll take note of the product on offer. The fact that some have been mocking the campaign—as evidenced in YouTube comments—suggests it's at least registering with them instead of just floating by as previous mayo ads might have. When these folks arrive at the supermarket aisle, picking up a few items for a picnic or a brown-bag lunch, a fleeting memory of that rooftop dancing scene could well make the difference—nudging their hands from a bottle of mayo over to that nearby jar of Miracle Whip.

Grade: B. Admittedly, the ads are silly. That doesn't mean they're ineffective. By the way, Miracle Whip (along with Rice Krispies and the iPod) always gets mentioned when people talk about products that were launched during economic downturns, as the Whip was introduced at the Chicago World's Fair of 1933. I asked Parnell whether it was mere coincidence that this major relaunch was also happening during a recession. He said it wasn't. Tighter times generally herald a return to making cheaper food at home—including, especially, sandwiches.