Fail Chips, in three flavors, were manufactured as a marketing gimmick. (Goran Kosanovic for The Washington Post)

In early February, a new brand of chips made its debut. It did not have ruffles or ridges. It did not come in a can or a special bag. The flavors — jalapeño, salt and vinegar, and barbecue — aren’t exactly innovative, either. Fail Chips are like all other chips, except for one thing: The bags are filled with the tiny bits of crushed-up chips you typically find at the bottom, after you eat the intact ones.

Yes, someone is manufacturing bags of smashed potato chip dust.

Some people think those bits of potato sediment are the best part of the bag. Others saw the fact that someone could build a brand around broken-up potato chips as evidence of the imminent collapse of the Republic.

If, by this point, you were beginning to wonder, “Is this product so ridiculous that it is actually a viral marketing campaign designed to trick me?” the answer is, “Yes!” Fail Chips are a promotional campaign from email marketing company MailChimp, a riff on the way people mispronounce the company’s name. (Other riffs included Male Crimp and Kale Limp.)

But even though Fail Chips are a marketing tool, they’re still a real product. They were custom-made for MailChimp by Snyder’s of Hanover, a Pennsylvania chip company. When MailChimp approached Snyder’s with the possibility of making crushed chips, “They were like, ‘Wait, what?’ It didn’t register at first,” said Mark DiCristina, senior director of brand marketing for MailChimp.

And even though the brand purports to be made of the leftover bits of broken chips, that’s not exactly how they’re made. Chip lovers may see it as something a little more sinister: Snyder’s takes perfectly good chips and smashes them up.

“We had to customize the manufacturing process for these chips,” said DiCristina. Snyder’s developed a tool for its manufacturing line that looks a little bit like a meat tenderizer. “This tool comes down and crushes them just right. You wouldn’t believe the amount of debate and rigor we put into getting just the right crush into the size of the broken chip, and how it’s supposed to look and feel.”

Fail Chips are not actually for sale. The company distributed 200,000 bags to a wide range of restaurants and bodegas across the country, and told them to hand them out however they pleased. Because they were distributed for free, DiCristina isn’t sure how many bags are left out there, but the company’s website has a map of purveyors if anyone wants to find a bag before they’re gone. Many handed them out with the purchase of a burger or a sandwich, and they were a hit at events like South by Southwest. You’d be forgiven for seeing their signs on the subways in cities like New York and San Francisco and thinking they were real, though. That was part of the goal. Some journalists even wrote blog posts that seemed to assume the chips could be purchased in stores.

“We had some chefs tasting the chips and doing recipes with the chips,” said DiCristina. “We created a media plan with the chips that would allow them to grow and catch some attention on their own without being directly attributed to MailChimp.”

So, what does it say about us as people that a company could successfully rebrand crushed-up potato chips as an artisanal product?

“You know, I think that people are interested in novelty, they’re interested in convenience, they’re interested in playfulness. There’s nothing cynical about what we’re doing with Fail Chips,” said DiCristina. “Everything seems like it’s been done with potato chips, and here is a very simple, different take on it.”

He even thinks that if some other company wanted to sell crushed-up potato dust, they could make a go at it, for real. But it won’t be MailChimp — though the company might continue making the chips as a promo, it never planned to sell them. “The software business is going to be a better fit for MailChimp than the food business,” he said.

One purveyor of Fail Chips would agree.

“Some customers like it,” said Adel, a cashier at the United We Stand Deli in Manhattan who asked that his last name not be used. But he has not been able to give away all of his bags. When a new product comes to his shop, he says, it takes time for customers to get to know it. “What does that mean?” he said, then paused. “I think it failed, that’s what it means.”