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We Lost the Advertising War

It’s already Lady Doritos’ world

Call me a paranoid truther, but ever since the supposed craze for eating Tide pods — which led directly into Super Bowl LII’s most successful ad campaign — I don’t trust anything that looks like “bad publicity” for brands. I now firmly believe that someone on the Tide marketing team planted the meme, that Pepsi knew exactly how tone-deaf their Kendall Jenner ad was, and that Netflix immediately ordered a sequel to their orc cop movie Bright because viewers tore it to shreds. With companies turning trollish to drum up impressions and trending topics, and increasingly eager to sound like the slang-savvy youth they’re selling cheeseburgers to, it only makes sense that they’d court the scorn of the outrage machine for profit. All it takes is a hint of poor taste.

Which is to say: Lady Doritos.

Yes, Indra Nooyi, the woman CEO of Doritos’ owner, PepsiCo — note the Kardashian connection! — unofficially announced the development of specialty Doritos geared toward women. She did so an entire week ago, on the Freakonomics podcast (definitely the place to soft-launch your sleight-of-hand negative press strategy), and it took that long for other media outlets to pick up the tidbit. Headlines declared that the chips had “insulted women everywhere,” made people “furious,” and earned a full-blown “backlash” on social media. For the better part of a weekday, “Doritos” and “Lady Doritos” were trending on Twitter. The net effect of this outcry, I’d wager, is that a bunch of people thought: “Huh, Doritos. Haven’t had those in a while. Now I’m kinda craving them. Better check the office vending machine.”

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I can think of just one objection to this conspiracy theory: Massive junk food corporations lack the nuanced understanding of Twitter politics that would allow them to kick the hornet’s nest at a profitable angle. Probably true! But won’t they figure it out soon enough? When Nooyi explained the rationale behind Doritos for women, it was impossible to tell whether she was alluding to in-house research or received stereotypes. Women, she claimed, “don’t like to crunch too loudly in public. And they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavor into their mouth” like men do. They also “love to carry a snack in their purse,” she added. One assumes she has survey data to back this up, but she may as well have pulled up a joke PowerPoint explaining the difference between Gamergate Bros and Soccer Moms.

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In the end, it hardly matters — and it matters even less that people are mad about the idea at this moment. Novelty and curiosity are enough to sell snacks, and if a dash of resentment ups the ante, all the better. Brands have taken internet bashings over their questionable feminine (and masculine) products since the dawn of Web 2.0’s viral call-out culture; everything from ear plugs to energy drinks has been pointlessly gendered at some point, and we’ve tirelessly cataloged each example, to no avail. Blame it on sexism or fragile masculinity, but the average consumer doesn’t seem to give a shit. Leave a snarky review for Bic’s laughable “For Her” pens if you want, because eight years after Jezebel lampooned them, they’re still very much for sale.

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What’s hard to see as an Extremely Online Person is that these controversies barely register outside a community self-selected for vigilance against them. Other people don’t keep up with offensive corporate misfires, let alone maintain active hostility to the giants of late capitalism, because they are already crushed by this culture in so many other (usually less visible) ways. They won’t know about Lady Doritos until they’re on shelves, at which point they’ll say, “Fuck it, why not,” and pick up a variety pack. There is no sense that they can reject the assumptions of marketing that give us individuated goods based on the shopper’s gender, age, race, or wealth, because in America, there is no alternative. If you’re a guy, you get body wash in black-and-blue bottles, and if you’re a woman, you buy the pink-and-white kind, the kind made for you. (If you’re non-binary, well, I guess you should use both, or neither. ) Gendered products think they address a need but only invent an anxiety about your category.

That’s what makes this polarity so insidious. The woke women dunking on Lady Doritos were never going to try them — except as a joke — while subtle damage trickles down to the mom looking at school lunch treats for her daughter in Walmart. Shopping can be a subliminal, instinctual process; we don’t always consider the logic behind or implications of which brightly-colored bag of flavor-dusted corn triangles we choose, yet the decision we make in that aisle can reinforce the diseased mentality coursing through the executive suites at organizations like PepsiCo: That women must be controlled and placated, silenced and exploited, with separate versions of some obviously unisex thing, “enhancements” which tell them they are different, needy, over complicated, and, till now, incomplete. Globalized businesses in the 21st century are faced with the agony of Alexander the Great: There are no more worlds to conquer. And so it falls to women to become uncharted, virgin territory — though they’ve been here snacking all along.