The best food marketing stunts of the year
Comically oversized snack foods. A cocktail infused with processed cheese. And a fine dining establishment for feline lovers.
In 2022, there were plenty of restaurants, food manufacturers and at least one artist collective that tried to break through with their shenanigans.
These food stunts were often outrageous and sometimes regrettable. But only a few unleashed items that made us say, “wait, what? Why would you do that? Who would eat that?” And, occasionally: “that actually sounds pretty good.”
Here’s what caught our attention this year.
Over the summer, Kraft Heinz
(KHC) introduced a new cocktail: The Veltini, a martini made with Velveeta-infused vodka, olive brine and vermouth, garnished with Velveeta-stuffed olives and Velveeta-stuffed shells. The concoction was available for a limited time at BLT steakhouses in New York, Washington, D.C., Charlotte and elsewhere.
The drink was part of Kraft Heinz’s broader efforts to reinvigorate the Velveeta brand after it saw sales of the processed cheese jump during the pandemic. To help Velveeta stage a comeback, the brand launched a new ad campaign, made tweaks to its logo and sold a cheese-scented nail polish.
The Veltini made a splash, even though (or perhaps because) those brave enough to try it were unenthused.
One Washington Post writer said it looked “like a deranged cheese monster, with olives as beady eyes and a dripping Velveeta cheese rim as a lopsided mouth.” The Today Show’s Hoda Kotb tried it on air, reluctantly, and was not a fan. “Yuck,” she said, “No, girl, no.” Her co-host, Jenna Bush Hager, said it wasn’t bad.
To be clear, this isn’t orange juice cereal: It’s cereal designed to be eaten with orange juice instead of milk. OJ-maker Tropicana sold the honey almond cereal for a limited time in May in honor of National Orange Juice Day.
The brand acknowledged that people might not be into the combination. “Whether you hate it or love it, you won’t know until you try it,” Tropicana said. “It may not be for everyone.”
One reviewer who gave the franken-breakfast a shot described it as “not bad,” adding “I can’t imagine eating a bowl of this every day.”
Plus, she said, it didn’t taste like it was supposed to go with orange juice specifically. “There’s absolutely nothing different from other cereals.”
In August, Oscar Mayer, also owned by Kraft Heinz, introduced the “Cold Dog”: A hot-dog flavored popsicle. The item was sold for a limited time at Popbar locations in New York City, New Orleans and elsewhere.
The idea came from a June Instagram post by Oscar Mayer which asked followers whether the idea was “genius” or “stupid.” Comments on the post range from horrified to intrigued. Enough people were interested to give Oscar Mayer the green light.
“After the overwhelming fan excitement for our beloved Cold Dog, it was a no-brainer to make this hot dog-inspired frozen pop a reality,” Anne Field, an Oscar Mayer spokesperson, said in a press release at the time.
So how did it taste? In at least one reviewer’s opinion, pretty good.
“I was beyond skeptical of how they could make a hot dog popsicle taste good. And somehow, they managed to do it!” according to a writer at Delish, who noted that Popbar uses gelato as the base for its pops. “The gelato is extremely creamy and has a strong smokey flavor that balances out the popsicle’s delicate sweetness. The sweet ‘mustard’ drizzle makes it taste more like a proper ice cream.”
In late June, Taco Bell tested out an item called a “Big Cheez-It Tostada.” As the name implies, it’s a tostada which used a Big Cheez-It — specifically, a Cheez-It 16 times larger than a regular one — as its base. The chain also tested out a “Big Cheez-It Crunchwrap Supreme,” which included the giant Cheez-It within the wrap.
The items were available for a limited-time at one Taco Bell location. On July 3, within a week of the launch, Taco Bell reported that the items had already sold out. “The Big Cheez-It Tostada and Big Cheez-It Crunchwrap are in such Big demand that our limited offer is no longer available,” the chain said.
Reviewers who tried the item were mixed. “Very cheesy, mmm” said one. Another concluded that “it’s not bad, it’s just weird.” Some noted that the Cheez-It, big though it may be, was not strong enough to maintain the weight of the toppings.
A large Cheez-It was also utilized by Pizza Hut in 2019, when the pizza chain introduced its stuffed Cheez-It pizza. The limited-time item included “four baked jumbo squares” stuffed with cheese or pepperoni and cheese, and came with a side of marinara sauce for dipping.
Unlike the Big Cheez-It Tostada, the Big Froot Loop is an unauthorized creation, made by the artist collective MSCHF.
The loop weighs nearly half a pound, is 930 calories and recently went on sale for $19.99. MSCHF tried to make the big loop taste as much as possible like the real thing, according to MSCHF’s co-founder Daniel Greenberg.
“We look at things in culture and figure out how to make a twist on it,” Greenberg previously told CNN. The thinking behind the project was straightforward: “Let’s make a big f—ing fruit loop and that was it.” According to the MSCHF site, the item, which went on sale December 19, is already sold out.
Kellogg’s, which makes actual Froot Loops, was not into it.
“Kellogg Company does not have a relationship with MSCHF and we were not involved in the creation of the Big Fruit Loop,” Kellogg spokesperson Kris Bahner previously told CNN in a statement. “The campaign does not accurately depict the Kellogg’s brand.”
Bahner added that “given the trademark infringement and unauthorized use of our brand, we have reached out to the company seeking an amicable resolution.”
Over the summer, Fancy Feast invited people to answer the question: What does cat food taste like? Well, sort of.
The cat food maker briefly opened a restaurant called “Gatto Bianco by Fancy Feast” in New York City in August. Gatto Bianco was open for just two nights, with four seatings per night.
The restaurant dishes drew inspiration from Fancy Feast Medleys, cat food that is itself inspired by human food like salmon primavera and turkey florentine. The restaurant’s menu was created by Amanda Hassner, in-house chef for Fancy Feast, as well as restaurateur Cesare Casella, a Michelin star winner, according to a Fancy Feast press release.
“Food has the power to connect us to others in meaningful ways and take us to places we have never been,” Hassner said in a statement at the time. “The same is true for our cats.”
Hassner added that “the dishes at Gatto Bianco are prepared in ways that help cat owners understand how their cats experience food — from flavor, to texture, to form.” On the menu, according to OpenTable, were baked sea bass, spare ribs, salmon, braised beef and for dessert, panna cotta, almond cake and affogato.
A Mashable reporter dined at the exclusive restaurant and reported that “the food is tasty,” and the atmosphere feline. “The design of the restaurant itself is practically an Instagram installation for the cat-obsessed, complete with ornate cat wallpaper, gold-embellished Fancy Feast cloth napkins, and cat art (as in, artwork of cats, not art made by cats).”
As a permanent addition to the Papa Johns menu, the no-crust, toppings-only Papa Bowls are technically not a stunt.
But the menu offering was so polarizing when it launched in August that we had to give it a nod.
The bowls were devised to help combat pandemic-induced pizza fatigue by giving Papa Johns customers an option that was, let’s say, pizza adjacent. The company also hoped that the bowls would eliminate the “veto vote,” when a restaurant is ruled out because it doesn’t have enough options for everyone in the dining party.
The bowls come in three varieties: Chicken Alfredo; Italian Meats Trio with pepperoni, sausage and meatballs; and Garden Veggie. There’s also a build-your-own option.
The announcement made quite a splash. Comedian Jon Stewart, who has made repeated jabs at Arby’s, said he owed an apology to the chain upon seeing news of the Papa Bowl. At least one YouTube reviewer panned the bowls, saying it was gross and slimy. But some people thought it was a good idea.
And during a November analyst call, Papa Johns CEO Rob Lynch said the bowls are “performing well and in line with our expectations.”
— Zoe Sottile and CNN’s Jordan Valinsky contributed to this report.