While the world struggles with a pandemic, there has been considerable focus by the right on their manufactured culture war. One aspect of manufacturing this war is using hyperbole and lies to make up a problem where none exists. Two recent examples of this include the right’s outrage around Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head. The right claimed that Dr. Seuss and Mr. Potato Head have been cancelled by the left.
As I noted in earlier essays, Dr. Seuss’ books have not been banned. While the right’s narrative around Dr. Seuss implied that popular books such as the Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham had been cancelled, the reality is that Dr. Seuss’ estate chose to stop publishing six books because they contain illustrations that “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” These books seem to have been relatively poor sellers and most people seem to be unfamiliar with them.
Politicians and pundits on the right generally did not focus on these six books, choosing instead to mislead the public by implying that all Dr. Seuss books had been cancelled or that at least very popular books had been cancelled. For example, Ted Cruz sold signed (by him) copies of Green Eggs and Ham and raised $125,000. He claimed that this was strike back against cancel culture. While Cruz has a history with that book, it is not one of the six books that the estate decided to stop selling.
There are good reasons to avoid using the six books: some of them do have racist content and the right would not look particularly good to the public if they explicitly defended racist content. To use an analogy, this would be like a company deciding to stop producing a product that has been show to be harmful and having some people “defend” the company by focusing on their good products and ignoring the harmful one.
However, the right’s base presumably gets the message: the right has not rushed to battle censorship in general, such as efforts to get books removed from libraries. Instead, they focus primarily on defending what most would see as racist and sexist content.
There are also good reasons to use the popular books in their examples: censoring Green Eggs and Ham would be absurd and by lying that the left wants to ban such books, they mislead their base into believing that “the left” is crazy and out of control. To use an analogy, consider Coca Cola’s decision to stop manufacturing Tab. Imagine a group decided to make this into an issue, but realized that most people did not care about Tab and that Tab sales were very weak. So instead of raging about Tab, they advanced the narrative that Coca Cola had been cancelled and held up cans of Coke and Diet Coke, implying that these sodas had been “cancelled” despite the obvious fact that they are readily available. Imagine Ted Cruz selling signed cans of Coke, claiming that he will use the money to strike back against cancel culture. If anyone believed these lies, they would think the Coke cancellers were crazy. The same thing is occurring with Dr. Seuss: the estate stopped publishing their text equivalents of Tab, but they are still selling their Coke and Diet Coke books.
As I have argued before at length, when companies change their product lines it is typically because they think doing so will maintain or increase their profits. If the left had the power to control companies, they would certainly use that power in more meaningful ways: they would force companies to improve wages, benefits and working conditions. As such, the idea that the out-of-control left is abusing hapless companies is absurd. Now, onto branding.
Hasbro recently decided to change the Mr. Potato Head brand to Potato Head. Mr. Potato Head and Mrs. Potato Head are still available and sold under those names. The company did make the statement that “Hasbro is making sure all feel welcome in the Potato Head world by officially dropping the Mr. from the Mr. Potato Head brand name and logo to promote gender equality and inclusion.” As of this writing, there is no evidence that Hasbro was subject to coercion or forced to make this decision.
Some on the right claimed that Mr. Potato Head had been cancelled, but they were generally not clear about exactly what they meant. Some seem to have meant that Mr. Potato Head would no longer be manufactured, which was not true. Others might have simply been angry at what Hasbro did: change the brand from “Mr. Potato Head” to “Potato Head” while maintaining the Mr. and Mrs. versions of the toys. On the face of it, this seems to be a silly fight: a toy company slightly changed the brand name for a toy line while retaining the toys. A deeper look reveals that it is, in fact, a silly fight.
From a political standpoint, this was a clever move: by misleading their base about the facts, they generated outrage against “the left” and distracted them away from the fact that the Republicans seem to have little in the way of policies or interest in engaging with meaningful problems. They also do not need to do anything: there is no problem to solve, no results to achieve. There is just an opportunity for unfounded outrage that will feed the base until they can find a situation suitable for manufacturing pointless outrage.
Corporations changing their products and brands does not appear to create any meaningful problems—they are simply changing to maximize their profits. Consumer tastes and values change over time and that is what is happening now. As it has always happened—there is nothing sinister going on in these cases, no problem to solve, no need of state action. The right is simply manufacturing a problem where none currently exists, other than the “problem” that consumers change over time.