Mr. Potato Head, the media, and the profitability of rage

By BEN R. WILLIAMS

    Last week I was scrolling through Facebook when I saw that a local news channel had posted an article on their page. The title: “A mister no more: Mr. Potato Head goes gender neutral.”

    My first thought, of course, was that I definitely shouldn’t read the comments on the article. Then I read the comments and immediately regretted doing so.

    Over the next couple of days, I saw multiple people share the story. It seemed as though every news agency in the country had copied and pasted the same four-paragraph article and slapped it on their Facebook page. And everyone who shared the article voiced the same sense of outrage.

    This, they said, was ridiculous, an example of political correctness run amok, of the softening of our society, of the sinister liberal agenda to remove gender labels from root vegetables. Where would it end? How long, oh Lord, how long? Etc. etc.

    And then I actually read the article everyone was sharing, brief though it was. It made absolutely no sense to me. 

    The article was vague and lacking in detail, and I couldn’t understand why the toy company Hasbro would want to make this particular statement when literally no human being on Earth has ever complained that Mr. Potato Head does not adequately encompass the gender spectrum.

    I went to Hasbro’s website to try to find some sort of press release that would explain all this. I couldn’t find one.

    And then, for whatever reason, I checked the website again a few hours later. 

    About five hours after the news story broke, Hasbro released an official statement. Here’s the first paragraph from it: 

    “Hasbro is officially renaming the Mr. Potato Head brand to Potato Head to better reflect the full line. But rest assured, the iconic Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head characters aren’t going anywhere and will remain Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head.”

    You see, Hasbro’s Mr. Potato Head line does not just include Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head. You can go on their website and purchase up to 39 different variations on the iconic tuber, including a Han Solo Potato Head, a Spider-Man Potato Head, and my personal favorite, a grizzled sea captain Potato Head named Saul T. Chips. 

    This is pure speculation on my part, but here’s what I think happened: Hasbro decided to update their branding, and someone suggested that they officially change the name of the product line to simply “Potato Head” since Mr. Potato Head himself is only one part of it. 

    Next, this information was probably shared with stockholders, and one of them either accidentally or deliberately misinterpreted the announcement to mean that Hasbro was taking a strong stand against the gender binary rather than modifying the name of a product line for branding purposes. 

    This information was then sent to a media outlet (I couldn’t figure out who initially broke the story) and that outlet deliberately misinterpreted Hasbro’s announcement. The article, if you can call it that, was then picked up by every media outlet in America and shared widely, which probably caused a very bad day for everyone at Hasbro and resulted in someone having to hastily write a press release.

    “But Ben,” you are perhaps asking, “why would so many different media outlets run the same poorly-written, misleading story without bothering to do the small amount of fact-checking that you apparently did in your free time?”

    The answer to that question, my friends, is money.

    First off, most small media outlets — whether we’re talking about your local newspaper (present company excluded) or your local network affiliate — no longer have the staff to generate enough local content to meet demand. Instead, they pick up random stories off the newswire and run it under their banner.

    But why run a misleading story about poor old Mr. Potato Head? That’s easy: no one is going to click on an article titled “Hasbro rebrands product line,” but everyone is going to click on an article titled “Mr. Potato Head is going to infect your child with the liberal agenda.” 

    Those clicks equal ad revenue. They equal cold, hard cash. And the best way to get people to click on your articles is to make them angry.

    For example, I have noticed that at least one southwest Virginia media outlet has shared more articles about Barack Obama since he left office than they ever did while he was President. They don’t do this because folks around here are clamoring for updates on the former President; they do it because a whole lot folks in southwest Virginia despise Barack Obama, and they’re going to voice that rage in the comments, which will boost social media engagement, which will generate clicks, which will generate ad revenue, which will allow the president of the massive conglomerate that owns the media outlet to pay the monthly slip fee at the marina where he keeps his yacht.

    How do we combat this misinformation? The only answer is critical thinking. We have to remember that if a news story seems solely designed to make us angry, there’s a good chance it’s not showing the whole picture. 

    I once read a quote about social media that applies equally well to clickbait journalism: If you aren’t paying for it, you’re not the customer, you’re the product.

 

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