Of all the things to raise a fuss online about in 2021 — domestic terrorism at the Capitol, GameStop’s stocks taking an unexpected turn, everyone’s favorite childhood TV shows getting rebooted for some godforsaken reason — the renaming of a potato-themed toy brand is apparently something people are talking about now. Why? Because, frankly, legacy media outlets fumbled the ball.
It all started on Feb. 25th when the Associated Press first broke the story that Hasbro decided to rename its Mr. Potato Head brand of toys to being simply Potato Head with the headline “Mr. Potato Head drops the mister, sort of.” The article goes further to discuss the implications of the brand’s renaming (the brand is simply being renamed, but the Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head characters remain the same), but the lazy headline spread like wildfire amongst news outlets, many of whom use the AP as a wire service. Take for example PBS’s headline “Mr. Potato Head gets new gender-neutral name.”
Naturally, the headlines drew the ire of conservatives online. ACTforAmerica founder and chairman Brigitte Gabriel tweeted, “Leave Mr. Potato Head alone!!” in defense of the plastic spud’s all-important manhood and referenced an article titled “Did Mr. Potato Head Just Lose His Gender?” from right-wing site Patriot’s Gazette.
This, to me, is a prime example of what happens when media outlets forgo nuance for clickbait — it strips away the details and stirs outrage over something that isn’t really anything at all. And outrage over changes like this come from resistance and fear of shifting societal norms — a phenomenon referred to as a ‘moral panic.’
Moral panics seem to come up every so often as a result of a backlash to social change. These controversies are egged on by local and national news stories and seem to never go away. Near-annual panics about finding razor blades in Halloween candy (a largely unfounded myth that originates from retaliation against the social movements of the 1960s and 70s) and parental concerns about Pokémon being demonic in the 1990s (stemming from conservative Christian groups opposing children learning about evolution or Eastern religions) fall into the category of moral panic. Want a more recent example? Look no further than last week’s controversy over Lil Nas X’s music video for “Montero,” which includes the openly gay rapper riding a stripper pole down to hell and giving Satan himself a lap dance.
Moral panics occur so regularly that You’re Wrong About, a hit podcast that discusses the way the media has mishandled coverage of a variety of topics (including controversy about ‘crack babies’ in the 1980s and statistics on human trafficking, to name a few) mentions the concept in nearly every episode. As long as many media outlets continue to sacrifice quality for clicks and we seem to love nothing more than rage-posting to our echo chambers, Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall’s (very good) podcast will probably never run out of episode material.
As a journalist and someone who enjoys pop culture as much as the next person, seeing the continuous cycle of outrage and moral panics grinds me down. I’m just as guilty of being a participant in the cycle as anyone else, and I won’t pretend to be above it. I just want to see media institutions held to the same ethical standards as any college student in a journalism class is, because while the Potato Head situation is a light-hearted example, we have seen the damage that outrage spurred by misinformation has done to our discourse. It is up to us to hold ourselves—and our sources of news—accountable, and to stop making a mountain out of a molehill… or a plastic potato.