Is there anything that exemplifies late-stage capitalism better than this? One of the hottest toys right now is a plastic sphere called 5 Surprise Mini Brands. Children buy it (for anywhere between $5 and $15) and peel it apart to reveal five tiny replicas of branded supermarket products from corporate conglomerates such as Unilever, Hormel and Kikkoman. There are 70 possible brands to collect — some super rare, such as a Mentos container with a gold wrapper; all about 1 or 2 inches tall — and one of the surprises might be a plastic shopping cart or shopping basket to practice “shopping” and store your products.
Some of the miniatures are ice cream or candy, but most are products children and teens would have no interest in whatsoever. There’s Dove baby lotion, Barbasol shaving cream and Lipton Ceylon tea. I cannot imagine what person would be excited to receive a tiny bag of Knorr chicken-flavored “Pasta Sides,” but it’s in there, along with Q-Tips, Wet Ones hand wipes and Pond’s Rejuveness anti-wrinkle cream. If it’s not already obvious, this toy is a financial partnership between brands, giving them an opportunity to instill loyalty in very young customers.
But is there anything that exemplifies late-stage capitalism better than this? People — children and adults — buy their balls of mini brands and open them on video-sharing apps, including TikTok and YouTube, effectively giving the brand free advertising. If the consumers have a following on YouTube, they can then monetize those page views — which can be in the millions of dollars — so they are making money off a company that is making money by giving brands an opportunity to make money.
It’s beautiful, really. It also fills me with an existential dread.
The toys, made by a company called Zuru, aren’t shy about their business model.
“The toy category has such huge potential to influence the household shopper that consumer brands are becoming increasingly open to brand partnerships,” the company wrote in an emailed statement. “Partnering with a toy brand allows consumer brands to access the household shopper through the most influential channel of all — their children!”
A representative from Hormel issued a statement that declined to address whether the partnership was paid: “We did work with a licensee that partners with Zuru to ensure the authenticity of our brands are represented.”
A spokeswoman for Perfetti Van Melle, a candy company that owns Airheads and Mentos, wrote, “Yes, we are partnering with Zuru. However, we don’t pay them for the placement of our brands.” Unilever, whose products comprise the bulk of the mini brands collectibles, did not respond to an inquiry from The Post.
Zuru said that companies don’t pay directly for their brands to be included, “but brands do earn royalties.” Some of the YouTube videos can be attributed to the company’s marketing strategy, which “works closely with influencers.”
We bought six of these balls.
Opening each one is like opening a little present, except the present is just marketing. (But really, the present is you, the gift-giver is Zuru, the recipient is corporations.) And because the brands are miniature, you’re more inclined to let that slide. Especially when the brands are beloved or are the sturdier mini plastic containers (they’re cuter!), rather than the boxed brands, which are just tiny paper boxes.
Tiny Hellman’s mayonnaise? Adorable! Little tub of Breyer’s ice cream? Aww! Skippy peanut butter? Could not be more precious. Suave body wash? Ehh, okay. Dove Men+Care bar soap? Sigh.
The mini brands are all empty, of course, despite a subgenre of the mini brands unboxing videos, where people go to elaborate lengths to fill them with product — whittling down bars of soap, razoring open a can of Spam to fill it with tiny spoonfuls of meat — to prank their fans.
But there is no tiny bacon in that canister of bacon bits. These are just pieces of plastic that are destined to swirl around the great Pacific garbage patch before becoming lodged in a sea turtle’s throat. They are full of surprises, but completely empty inside.
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