Sunday, May 27, 2007


The other day I was shopping in our neighborhood Pathmark supermarket when I saw a display that caught my eye. It consisted of a bunch of unusual looking bags of chips. Now, I'm not very big on chips myself, but other members of my family go in for them, and it's not like I won't touch the stuff, I will (which is why I try to stay away from them), so I brought a bag home with me (after paying for it, of course).

Anyway, the bags are mostly in black, which is somewhat unusual for chips, with very large writing in white, some of which is outlined in red, giving it a very mysterious, if not dangerous look. At the very top is a kind of squiggle slanting slightly upwards as you move from left to right, going from a straight line to a series of sharp up and down marks, like the graphs drawn by a lie detector or some such device, and then trailing off into a straight line. Although horizontal, it also evokes a kind of lightning bolt effect, but mostly seems to signify some sort of electrical device used for testing. It appears in white against the black background, but outline in red.

Below this is the familiar Doritos logo, but in very large print, in white with a touch of gray to give a 3-D effect, outlined in red. Below it, in plain, white type as large as the logo is the mysterious designation "X-13D" which takes the place of any kind of description or name for this particular product. Below that is an image that looks like a paste-on label. The top half is white, and in black print it reads:

This is the X-13D Flavor Experiment.
Objective: Taste and name DORITOS® flavor X-13D.
Receive additional instructions at
or text 'X-13D' to 24477 ('CHIPS').

The bottom half is in gray, and lined like note paper, with just the words "Tasting notes:" followed by "ALL-AMERICAN CLASSIC" in what looks like handwritten felt tip pen. And here's what it looks like:

So, it's a mystery for the consumer to solve. The website,, provides an attractive view of an urban landscape, kind of reminds me a little of the SimCity videogame/simulation, with different areas to click on, including one devoted to X-13D. And that takes you to another site,, where you have the opportunity to "Name the Flavor," and also use the "Clue Generator" to play videogames and obtain clues about the mystery flavor, and also use an "Ad Generator" to actually create an advertisement for the new product.

This takes the notion of cool media that McLuhan discussed, where less information delivered by the source requires more participation on the part of the audience, to a new level, and it does the same for what McLuhan's associate, media and advertising practitioner Tony Schwartz, dubbed the soft sell. And it capitalizes on the open-source, do-it-yourself mentality fostered by the internet, web, and social networking sites such as Flickr, YouTube, and MySpace. It also adopts the media marketing strategy of films such as The Blair Witch Project and The Matrix trilogy, which rely on the audience to go to the internet to complete for themselves the entire narrative.

So, when you go to the X-13D site, text appears informing you that, "You are now part of the X-13D Flavor Experiment" and then cuts to, in large type:


It's all that and a bag of chips, but I'm sure there are people drawn in by the mock-serious tone and
the mystery of it all--chip noir. Hey, the winner gets a year's supply of snacks, so let the chips fall where they may.

But is this snack food any good, you may well ask. In the end, no amount of cool and groovy advertising will sell a bad product, at least not more than once.

Well, first of all, the taste seems somewhat familiar, but it's hard to put your finger on. My first reaction was tartar sauce, but that would hardly be an
"ALL-AMERICAN CLASSIC" now, would it? A second tasting made me think of pickles, a little better maybe, but I don't usually associate pickles with baseball and apple pie. And the chips sure don't taste like apple pie. In all honesty, neither I, nor my wife or son could figure it out.

That's the odd thing about a lot of our food, that it is, well, not exactly tasteless, but somewhat less than flavorful. I've heard the complaint about our tomatoes (and New Jersey is known for its tomatoes) repeated, in contrast to the tomatoes from (fill in the blank with your favorite old country), and I also heard, when I was a grad student in a class on propaganda taught by Terry Moran in the grand old media ecology program (now sadly eliminated) at New York University, that when people are blindfolded, they have a great deal of difficulty telling the difference between different flavors of soda. Apparently, it's the color, and the name of the drink that set up our expectations and tell us what we're supposed to be tasting. Talk about your cool media.

So, what do other people think about this mystery flavor. I did a quick google and found that on it says:

The chips looked brighter than normal Nacho Cheese Doritos, as they had the same underlying yellow tortilla chip shape and color, with some brighter orange powder. I thought I was wrong when I smelled pickles, but then I tasted them and there was a hint of pickle flavoring. I then saw on the bag that they have "Tasting notes: All-American classic," which made me think that they're going for either a cheeseburger taste or maybe a hot dog flavor, with pickles and onion. The ingredients included onion powder, tomato powder and cheddar cheese, but no pickle flavoring that I could identify. Definitely a bizarre taste. It should be interesting to see what other people think about this flavor. Not the best Doritos flavor I've tried, but certainly an unusual one — at least it didn't taste like Nacho Cheese or Cool Ranch.

Aroma: They smell a bit like dill pickles, oddly enough.

And, on another blog, Kathunter's Personal Space, in an entry entitled Doritos: X-13D Campaign, I found the following:

I love a good advertising gimmick. I have spent too many hours in war rooms with slightly insane and terribly talented creatives to miss a mentionable effort. In case you bought a bag of Doritos at your corner store in the last couple days (which I do often - in love with the new BBQ flavor dipped in mexican cheese dip from the restaurant on my corner), you may have seen the generic black bag labeled "X-13D".

After a brief description of the bag, she goes on to relate:

Any agency who tries to pull a packaging or otherwise meaningless marketing stunt is an immediately absorbing opportunity, so I shell out the 99 cents...
-- eat some chips
-- tangy
-- eat more chips
-- strange this is not so mexican
-- omgwtflol i know exactly what this tastes like!

I had to respond via the super forward thinking method of short-code sms communication, and quickly found out the actual promotion does not begin until 05/13.
My attention span these days does not last that long, so for anyone who may Google this, the answer to Frito Lay Corp's question is the following:

McDonald's cheeseburger - specifically the bite with pickles and onion pieces.

I dare you to buy it and tell me I am wrong. Usually, I am wrong, however THIS time I am fracking positively beautifully correct.

Her post drew a lot of comments, with others suggesting that it might actually taste more like a Burger King Whopper, or McDonald's Big Mac. I suppose that sooner or later we will know for sure, if anyone still cares, but this also shows how, if you try to live by the internet, you may also die by the internet--no secret is entirely safe from this collaborative medium.

But the bottom line is that the chips just didn't taste very good, and I don't think that any one of us would buy them again, even knowing what they're supposed to be. Especially knowing what they're supposed to be.

But with advertising like this, who needs products in the first place? Just ride, captain, ride, upon your mystery chip.


Kevin H said...

You know, I was in the store just yesterday, and saw a similar bag, and wondered what it was. (But I was in a rush so didn't look it over). However, just think how hard it is to get my (or your)attention in the chaos of the chip bag aisle. So I guess they succeeded in that way. I mean, we are blogging about a bag of chips, for goodness sake. (that advertising exec gets a nice bonus this year).
You know what is next, right? A television show based on a mysterious bag of chips. :)

I appreciated that you tasted them for me and announced that they weren't so good.


Lance Strate said...

You are very welcome, Kevin. It is the obligation of the media ecologist to function as a Distant Early Warning system, after all, or should I say a canary in a coal mine?

In any event, I think your idea about a television show is brilliant. It could include an ensemble cast playing a bunch of characters who have no obvious connection to one another, but whose pasts are somehow interrelated in subtle ways, and are drawn together by the mystery of the bag, as the new flavor formula turns out to be a secret code developed by a 15th century Renaissance artist/scientist that, if fully understood, could bring on the end of the world, and as each character realizes that they have powers and abilities beyond mere mortals due to genetic change brought on by eating this new product, they realize that they only have 24 hours to stop the terrorist plot, so they disguise themselves as LA Highway Patrol officers as they desperately search for the radioactive material that gives this snack its special tang, yes it's Erik Estrada starring in CHIPS 2007!