Barbara Lippert’s Critique: A Star Is Born

Making a list, and checking it several times, there seem to be fewer new holiday spots to kick around this year. Naturally, there’s always fresh retail stuff (but sad to say, there is nobody nearly naked dancing in boxer shorts, although we do have Fran Drescher upstaged by a naked chimp). No, I’m talking about a new brand classic that can reappear each year and last forever—like Santa riding the Norelco shaver down the snowy trail or that ad for the Chia pet and extensions like the Chia head, which looks more and more like Bill Clinton over time (OK, perhaps that’s not such a classic).

Despite the general ho-ho-humness of the holiday output, we have seen the birth of one classic: It’s Mr. Peanut, the prequel! Mr. P, who has been around since 1916, has consistently sported the signature aristocratic trappings of top hat, monocle, white gloves and cane. This shows he is no ordinary nut, and the Fred Astaire-like high-class trimmings must have worked wonders during the Depression, and maybe even figured unconsciously in the creation of the Monopoly guy.

Of course, brand iconography is serious stuff, to be guarded zealously by the corporate parent, and that’s why I was shocked (shocked!) when the Pillsbury Doughboy, Poppin’ Fresh, was allowed to appear in a current Sprint commercial—his warm, soft, just-out-of-the-oven white belly bared to cross-promote cold, hard technology? I don’t think so.

Similarly, I’m sorry to report that Mr. P was put through some embarrassing paces just this year. Thank goodness the hat and spats were never replaced by a backward baseball cap and high-tops. (And Planters seems at least to know that Mr. Peanut could never affect the sassy attitude, or penchant for cross-dressing, of the red M&M.) But in an effort to make Planters the “Saturday night” snack, Foote Cone & Belding showed the dancing nut unplugged: doing disco moves in one spot and, yikes, break-dancing and boogying to hip-hop in another. It wasn’t quite as traumatizing as seeing the old guy remove his gloves, but it was fairly tawdry.

This new Planters holiday commercial goes deeper than merely trying to “contemporize” the one-eyed icon: He is not of our time, and that’s why it’s smart to spin the origin myth to take us on an anthro-legumic journey.

We see old home movies of Mr. P as a wee legume. The whole spot is done in CGI, and the genius is in the way the screen crackles and lurches, just like old movies do, and the way the baby nut sits and gurgles and kicks his shoes and grabs at stuff, like tiny humans. The baby thing connotes purity and taps into the sweet, primal wonder of nature, which ties in nicely to the unprocessed, organic quality of nuts. It works uniquely well for a product that’s untouched, not manufactured. (Mr. Whipple depicted as a tiny toilet-paper pusher, for example, would be a total turnoff.)

In the longer spot, we get to see the moment Mr. P slaps on the monocle (he was actually given a second eye for the occasion, but as soon as the monocle goes on, it vanishes). With palpable baby moves, he then grabs the cane and puts on the hat, which covers his whole tiny head and makes him fall over, Humpty Dumpty style. The shorter version cuts to the essentials—he puts on the hat and falls over.

The baby part is so mesmerizing that I wish there were more of it. Instead, there’s a cut to the contemporary Mr. P watching the movie with Santa and a reindeer (not necessary) and a product shot (ditto). The falling-nut shot rips us away from the baby reverie.

The music is “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.” It’s overused, but it also can be quite a sad and poignant song, and here the remake fits into the nostalgic, looking-back idea, because it’s slow and sounds like Dean Martin pre-Rowan.

Imagine all the other stories that now can be unleashed: Following the cycles of all the great mythological archetypes, Mr. P goes in search of his father but finds that although he, too, was born an aristocrat, he’s in the can. OK, so that was as bad as any fake-snow and false-Santa merriment of the season. (I’m talking about you, Kay Jewelers. And what’s with the diamond-giving hubby who looks like a cross between a creative director and a werewolf?)

To all, a happy, healthy holiday. May we get to stretch our characters just a little further next year.