On Thursday, Hasbro announced changes to the nearly 70-year-old Potato Head brand. The iconic toy consists of a plastic body and small holes where various accessories could be plugged to create limitless forms: A Mr. Potato Head with glasses, smiles, and varieties of footwear and hair among them. The brand, popularized in the Toy Story movie franchise, also announced a brand new toy pack that would allow children to mix and match their versions of modern families, which might consist of two moms or two dads.
This isn’t a story about gender neutral toys; you’ve already seen the headlines. This isn’t about a story about whether a brand has the right to capitalize on a social cause — the debate is still raging on Twitter. This is a story about ethical journalism, a company’s brand integrity, and what happens when both pull a sleight of hand to edit or eliminate their narratives to hide communications blunders.
That’s because a review of cached pages reveals that Hasbro’s marketing team and Associated Press took a page from the toy’s famous mix and match novelty with their liberal edits about the new product line. In doing so, they edited their stories faster than you can change Mr. Potato Head from a firefighter to a police captain — with zero transparency — and effectively kept changing the story.
Within hours, Hasbro walked back their strong support of diversity among modern families, raising the specter of using stunt marketing along with disingenuous virtue signaling to make a product sale.
On February 25, Associated Press led the news bearing the title “Mr. Potato Head goes gender neutral.” The story — if you can call it that, as it was only six sentences — claimed the toy was getting a “gender neutral new name, Potato Head” by dropping the mister and would appear on boxes later in the year.
Dozens of news agencies distributed the feed, parroting the title and content verbatim. On Twitter, hashtags #PotatoHead and #Hasbro were instantly trending, with users split between those supportive and some against the notion of a gender-neutral toy. Still, others had concerns about virtue signaling from a large corporation to earn a buck. Providing buoyancy to the social engagement was, of course, deliberations over the Equality Act in Congress this week, earning a flurry of attention to which both AP and Hasbro wanted to capitalize.
Several hours into the social uproar, Hasbro clarified their stance with a tweet, saying, “While it was announced today that the POTATO HEAD brand name & logo are dropping the ‘MR.’ I yam [sic] proud to confirm that MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD aren’t going anywhere and will remain MR. & MRS. POTATO HEAD.”
This led to even more confusion. Did Hasbro buckle under social pressure, or did the AP take creative license with the story? The answer, it appears, is both. But we’ll need to hop in the DeLorean and go back to the future to verify.
Browse to the link of that same AP article today, and you will find a new title and a much-changed piece with extensive edits. The title now reads “Mr. Potato Head drops the mister, sort of,” though the URL remains unchanged with its clickbait phrase intact, obviously to preserve backlinks already out in the ether.
Typically when an article is changed, journalists provide obvious indications such as a footnote regarding “a developing story.” Or they might append, “an earlier version of this article claimed something that required correction.” Editors might even include an obvious note of the date and time of the first publication, along with the most recent edited date. Including any or all these disclaimers demonstrates honesty and transparency in reporting.
“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,” was the original company messaging; then later removed from the press announcement.
But none of these caveats can be found in the current version of the article. Visitors to the page now would have no clue of the numerous changes; they might incorrectly assume the piece was written today. That’s because the Associated Press article provides minimal publication information on the display, merely showing that the author, Joseph Pisani, published the article today, February 26.
But that’s not entirely true. A peek at the page’s metadata reveals that the publication timestamp is 2021–02–25T16:37:41, and the last modified date is 2021–02–26T02:48:39.
Pisani, in this changed version of the piece, claims that “Hasbro created confusion Thursday” by announcing that it would drop the “Mr.” from the toy’s name while also creating a new playset without the Mr. and Mrs. designations to allow children to create their own families, including two moms or two dads. He charges confusion was created by Hasbro in their afternoon tweet later in the afternoon.
Pisani goes on to charge that the toy company “appears to want to have it both ways: expand the brand, while not killing off its most iconic characters.” But Pisano neglects to disclose that he wants it both ways too. He changes the narrative on a clickbait story he manufactured while shirking responsibility and blaming Hasbro for the confusion.
But Pisano doesn’t deserve all the blame. If we hop back in the DeLorean to view the trail of internet breadcrumbs, we find no disclosures on the numerous changes to Hasbro’s original press release either.
Hasbro pulls a fast one too
Head over to the Hasbro site, and you’ll find an article dated February 25 titled “Mr. Potato Head Brand Update.” But the original title of the press released, verified from a cached page presumably at the time Pisano went to press, was, “Create your Potato Head family, launching this Fall.”
Though that’s a rather benign title, the content changed substantially. A review of both document versions reveals that Hasbro’s original announcement fizzled from a full-throated endorsement of “gender equality and inclusion” for “modern consumers” and replaced that with a lukewarm claim about the brand’s name change and the ability to mash accessories together in a new toy pack.
The marketing folks explain in the edited page that a new toy pack called “Create your own Potato Head family is a celebration of the many faces of families allowing kids to imagine and create their own Potato Head family with two large potato bodies, one small potato body, and 42 accessories.”
This updated text eliminates a key phrase in the original which asserted a “potato family can have up to 2 parents and a baby.” Omitting those words dilutes the message about recognizing modern families, regardless of the parents’ genders.
The biggest headscratcher is the change to the reasoning shared by Hasbro for the branding name change. Today, the three-paragraph release says that the official renaming to the shortened Potato Head is “to better reflect the full line.”
But yesterday, their position was much bolder. “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,” was the original company messaging; then later removed from the press announcement.
Why the controversy?
It’s not too much of a stretch to assume that Hasbro timed the original product announcement to the debates in Congress surrounding the Equality Act. The bill, if passed, would prohibit “discrimination based on sex, sexual orientation, and gender identity in a wide variety of areas including public accommodations and facilities, education, federal funding, employment, housing, credit, and the jury system.”
Senator Marjorie Taylor Greene amplified the social debate with her outrageous grandstanding while antagonizing Democratic colleagues this week, generating a ton of Twitter traffic. In response, a few consumer brands, like Oreo and Nabisco, also weighed in on Twitter with their support for the Act. A timely Oreo tweet that “trans people exist” currently has 477,300 likes and 86,300 retweets.
For their part, The Associated Press most certainly capitalized on the news of the Equality Act with a clickbait title in hopes of riding the trending wave. However, the continuous edit of both content and headline performed without transparency adds fuel to arguments made against “fake news.”
For Hasbro, there is no evidence of production planned of the new toy. Though I do not doubt the sincerity of bringing this product to market, the company has noted that it is not available today, it is not available for preorder, there is no suggested pricing, there is no promise date of delivery or resale channel, and graphics can be quickly developed with Photoshop. It is possible this was all part of a crowdsourced market research experiment conducted during a trending Senate vote.
More importantly, the fact that Hasbro walked back their strong support of equality and diversity among modern families raises the specter of using stunt marketing along with disingenuous virtue signaling to make a product sale.