"Anything you need to know about a nation is inscribed in its branded roasted-peanut advertising," said no one, ever. But following the path of Mr. Peanut, the mascot for Planters Peanuts, provides a fascinating lens through which to look at American pop cultural mores and trends.
Planters Nut and Chocolate Co. was founded in 1906 by two Italian immigrants who'd operated a fruit stand. Mr. P came along 10 years later, according to the Planters website, drawn by a local schoolboy who won a contest. A commercial artist added a top hat, monocle, cane and spats.
The top hat and monocle combo was a popular cartoon affectation at the time, used to connote old-school wealth (think Uncle Pennybags from Monopoly, and The New Yorker's mascot, Eustace Tilley). In this case, however, perhaps the artist was thinking more of a huckster.
But back to our goober.
In 1918, Planters placed a series of print ads in The Saturday Evening Post. One in the series was "The Nickel Lunch," a prescient take on grab-and-go fast-food culture to come. In it, a commuter runs to a train. Looks innocent enough. But then there's the copy, which spells out that the peanuts are "brown as a Pullman porter, crisp as a new ticket."
The casual racism was the norm in 1918. Fast-forward 52 years later, and Planters has a two-page spread of a beautiful woman with an afro and a tear—a peanut-enjoying partier who stood for all of America.
By the time the company gave Mr. Peanut a voice in 2010 (Robert Downey Jr., at first), and a mini sidekick, Benson, people joked about a gay vibe. And while that Christmas spot was more about an unfortunate run-in with a nutcracker, the rest of the guests represented the all-things-great-and-small universe of bugs and nature—a satiric way of being inclusive.
The series is still going, and the spots remain psycho-manifestos—something for everyone, except those with food allergies.