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Junk-food brands are coming for Christmas—and this ugly Cheetos sweater is proof

Frito-Lay has joined the likes of McDonald’s, KFC, and Dunkin in the madness of pushing branded merch and apparel.

Junk-food brands are coming for Christmas—and this ugly Cheetos sweater is proof
[Photo: Frito-Lay North America]
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‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house,

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Not a brand-obsessed creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

The Cheetos stockings were hung by the chimney with care,

In hopes that Coca-Cola’s St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds,

While visions of Doritos danced in their heads;

And mamma in her Smartfood ‘kerchief, and I in my Tostitos cap,

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Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap . . .

It just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it?

But in the brand-soaked world in which we currently find ourselves, we now have to wrestle with November 17’s debut of Frito-Lay’s inexplicably exhaustive holiday merch shop. Ugly holiday sweaters for Lay’s, Doritos, Cheetos, and Tostitos? Check. Socks? Yes. Scarves? Of course. Winter hats? Duh. Full-length hooded onesies? Holly jolly hells yes.

The company even got Anna Kendrick to do her best Julie Andrews impression to hype the drop.

The snack conglomerate’s festive, albeit oppressive onslaught of shoehorning its brands into seasonal merchandise is just the latest salvo in the trend of increasingly frequent consumer brand extensions into apparel and related accessories. Back in 2017, Taco Bell joined forces with retailer Forever 21 on a limited line. KFC has had multiple apparel runs in recent years, from Crocs to a collab with the streetwear brand Human Made. Even before we were all working from home, McDonald’s made its own athleisure line. Earlier this year, Popeyes went head to head with Beyoncé’s Ivy Park (sort of). Utz has chip-themed masks for all your COVID-19 protection needs. And earlier this week, fresh off the news that Dunkin’ had been acquired for $8.8 billion, the pink-and-orange-hued coffee juggernaut launched its own not-so-Coolatta apparel shop.

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Of course we’ve long worn brands on our backs: sports teams, bands, record labels, you name it. Hell, ask anyone under 25 what Thrasher is, and odds are you’ll get “apparel brand” as an answer before you’ll hear the words “skateboarding mag.” Playboy’s logo and licensed merch have long been more valuable than its media holdings. Harley-Davidson T-shirts are more common than their signature motorbikes.

But there has traditionally been an unspoken line between cultural brands that translate naturally to T-shirts and other merch, and, let’s say, a global snacks conglomerate. Duke Greenhill, Savannah College of Art and Design’s chairman of advertising and graphic design, told The Wall Street Journal in relation to the Popeyes products, that these brand extensions may not turn Anna Wintour’s head, but “built into the extension is a tongue-in-cheek nod—a wink to target audiences that they’re on the inside of a benign and partial joke.”

Back in the mid-90s, there was a sect of skateboarders and snowboarders who would scour thrift shops for old fast-food uniform hats and shirts to wear. One one hand, it was a less-than-subtle middle finger to the corporatization of counterculture, while on the other just a pretty fun gag to go to school in an old Subway or Burger King hat.

Now, 25 years later, both the middle finger and exclusivity are long gone. The more these products are marketed and sold, the more diluted that nod and wink becomes.

There was once something funny and novel about seeing someone rocking KFC Crocs.

There’s nothing funny about everyone doing it.

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The novelty is the thing. It’s why any branded drop should be as exclusive and limited as the most ridiculously tedious streetwear brand. Probably more so, given the landfill potential for all of these goods, once the initial enthusiasm wears off.

Here we are in the midst of an extinction-level crisis for restaurants overall, and the fast-food brand extensions further entrench these companies’ advantage in scale and survivability over their independent counterparts. At the same time, what does it say about pop culture when brands have become the main attraction? Traditionally these were spaces we permitted into the pop culture supporting cast—Star Wars and Disney combo meals and licensed snacks abound.

Then these companies realized they may just have fans of their own. As KFC’s U.S. director of media and digital Steve Kelly said back in 2017, “Our fans were craving a way to embrace the fried chicken lifestyle, and KFC Ltd. gives them the opportunity to let their Colonel flag fly.” (If you have embraced the “fried chicken lifestyle,” sincerest apologies.)

Coco Chanel once said, “Fashion is not something that exists in dresses only. Fashion is in the sky, in the street. Fashion has to do with ideas, the way we live, what is happening.” Perhaps what is happening is we’ve just become so soaked in brand marketing that these logos and messages have eventually become as comforting as an age-old Christmas poem.

“Now, Doritos! now, Cheetos! now, Smartfood and Lay’s!

On, McDonald’s! on Popeye’s! on, Pizza Hut and Dunkin’!

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To the top of the porch! to the top of the wall!

Now dash away! dash away! dash away all!”

About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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