Hey gang, let’s talk about Papa John. But only for a minute, because we really need to talk about the idea of “Papa John” and his place in society.
As you might remember, John “Papa John” Schnatter got in a bit of trouble back in 2018, capping off a negative PR streak with some questionable race-related behavior in a meeting with a client, including, but not limited to, using the N-word during the call.
As was likely suggested by more than a few of his co-workers, friends, people he saw at the grocery store, etc., Schnatter stepped down as CEO a few months later, and in case you were wondering, recently checked in with OAN to let us know how he’d been handling everything that went down. Here’s a quote from that interview:
OAN: “Take me back to a few years ago when you start to see these headlines coming out and smearing your good name. How did you feel at the time when you were seeing these headlines?”
Schnatter: “Umm, state of shock, umm, unbelievable, umm… I couldn’t understand it. I mean, again you have a public board that paints its chairman complicit, passive or active, they paint the founder as a racist. They know he’s not a racist. It’s just unbelievable, and I used to lay in bed just going, ‘How did they do this?’ And we’ve had three goals for the last twenty months, to get rid of this N-word in my vocabulary, and dictionary and everything else because it’s just not true, figure out how they did this, and get on with my life.”
Okay, so let’s talk about this for a minute (and again, just for a minute, because it’s not really the point of this story): Getting rid of the N-word in your vocabulary has been a goal for twenty months? Twenty? Look, I’ve never met Papa John (and even if I had, I lack the clinical background to make any sort of proper diagnosis), so I can’t weigh in on his capacity for learning, but I’ve got to say that twenty months seems like a tremendously long time to need to work on such a thing.
To be clear, he didn’t say “I haven’t said the word in 20 months,” like he was giving up alcohol or drugs, he just said he’s been working on removing the word, to which I feel I must ask:
Buddy how much were you saying the N-word that you’ve spent 20 MONTHS WORKING ON not saying the N-word?
If he really, really wanted to, I bet Chappelle could stop in, like, six to eight weeks. Probably.
If I gave you half that much time, or maybe a year at most, I bet you could go so far as to remove the letter “B” from your vocabulary without too many relapses along the way. Sure, it’d be a bumpy road at first, and you’d have to say things like “Nothing greater than sipping an ice cold pilsner, watching some hoops, and listening to Heavy D and The Friends of His,” but you could definitely make it work, and you’d still have ten months before Papa John was (probably) all done.
Also, going back twenty months takes us right around July 2019, and he said it on the conference call back in July 2018, which, if my math is correct, is an entire year prior, so, what exactly was going on between those two dates? Are we talking about some kind of 365-day racist rumspringa that needed to go down before really digging in and working to remove that word?
(Speaking of the word “racist,” you’ll recall that, per his own statement, his board was unfairly labeling him as racist, to which you’ll also recall that the response he deemed reasonable enough to share on television was essentially, “How dare they call me racist? Gimme like two years to stop saying the N-word and then we’ll see who’s the real racist. Heck, maybe not even two full years. I mean, definitely more than one, probably more than one and a half, but I’m pretty sure I’ll knock it out before two.”)
I’m not going to keep dwelling on how long twenty months truly is, so let me close on this: Did you know that a chicken can begin laying eggs when it’s 18 weeks old? Sure can, which means if a chicken hatched from an egg the very same day Papa John began his process, that chicken would be hanging out with its great great grandchildren by the time John was crossing the stage and collecting his “No more N-Word” pin, barring any slip ups or setbacks.
Okay, one more and then we’ll move on: Back in 2019, singer Mike Posner of “Cooler than Me” fame walked from New Jersey to California. That trip only took him six months, and that’s including the time he spent in the hospital after getting bit by a rattlesnake along the way. Say he and John were friends, and they decided to simultaneously engage in their literal and figurative journeys as New Year’s resolutions or something: Posner could have walked to California, hung out there for a month, turned around, started walking back to Jersey, got bit by another rattlesnake on the way home (or maybe the same one, it doesn’t really matter), and when they met back up, John would still have six months to go.
Now, we don’t need to get into a big thing about the ins and outs of what Papa John did or didn’t do/say, or what he’s been up to for the past 20 months of his life, because they don’t really matter much in the actual context of this conversation. Perhaps (and this is certainly possible) he failed to properly articulate exactly how he’s been spending his time, the vocabulary extraction took two or three days, and the rest of the twenty months were spent on the “figure out how they did this” and “getting on with my life” parts of his twenty month mission. Now, to be fair, having a “figure out how they did this” part does seem to indicate that self-reflection may not be John’s top priority these days, but that’s not the real point here either. The real point, the actual, substantial argument that needs to be established here, is this:
None of this ever happens if Papa John is a cartoon dog.
I’m not talking about pizza chain founder John Schnatter (he continues to exist as a human and will presumably do so for quite some time, there’s no changing that), I’m talking about the “Papa John” we knew, the one we’d seen on the television commercials for all those years. If that guy happened to have been portrayed by an animated dog, the rest would have gone over far more smoothly, because a CEO slipping up in the shadows is obviously far less of a problem for them (their company as well, but definitely them) than if the CEO has decided to become the public face of the brand.
When it comes to commercial spokespeople, a company can choose to enlist a celebrity, a fictional character, and/or an actor portraying a fictional character to represent their product. Or, they can opt to go the relatively unpopular and tremendously dangerous route of using a non-celebrity/“regular” person, someone who becomes famous to the masses by using their real name to promote a product (it doesn’t have to be a business they’re in charge of, but it often is), and, as a result, binding themselves to the product for all eternity, for better or for worse.
Either John Schnatter has never seen Casino, or he did what everyone does when they watch an organized crime movie (i.e., say “See, that’s where they messed up, I simply wouldn’t do that part because I’m really smart”), but either way, he took a page straight from the book of Sam “Ace” Rothstein, and instead of hanging out behind the scenes, running his empire and enjoying life, simply had to get in front of the camera to be the face of something that never needed a face to begin with.
Why would TV’s “Papa John” ever need to be played by the actual Papa John, were you under the impression that he was physically making your pizza? Nobody needed him to put his picture on the box, and nobody needed him in those commercials. Don’t get me wrong, he was certainly entitled to be there, and he’s more than welcome to say whatever he chooses to say (of course with the caveat that actions have consequences, which is a concept adults should be able to grasp fairly easily), but CEO John Schnatter being the commercial spokesman for Papa John’s is like if he was the owner/general manager of a football team, and his first order of business was to name himself starting quarterback even though it was fairly common throughout the league to just hire a cartoon character to play instead. Fast-forward to the Super Bowl, and while John’s attempting to lead the team to a fourth-quarter comeback, he strangely decides to throw the ball into the stands, hits a kid in the face with it, and then blames “cancel culture” when nobody wants him on the team anymore.
As social media continues to rise in prominence, the benefit to a “regular” spokesperson continues to decline, and Papa John is simply the latest to demonstrate its inherent risk. Dave Thomas shined in a similar role back in the day, but since he wasn’t around in an era where people are constantly recording and sharing people’s actions (and probably some other reasons as well), we never saw the mild-mannered guy from the Wendy’s commercials getting drunk at frat parties or swearing at his neighbors. As a result, the Wendy’s brand remained strong, and Thomas’ reputation remained spotless to the very end (at least I think it did, I am terrified to google him and find out).
Simply put, the risks that come with having a “regular” spokesman far outweigh the rewards, which is why, despite its memorable ads and taglines, the insurance industry has avoided the situation altogether. In the insurance game, you either get a potentially British lizard, a duck that only says the company’s name, or an emu that I think is also a police officer. If insurance companies insist on using humans, they either use celebrities, actors playing fictional characters such as Flo from Progressive (Farmers spokesman J.K. Simmons provides the rare example of a celebrity playing a fictional character, assuming the Oscar-winning actor doesn’t actually spend his days working at an insurance museum), or an animated military general who recently teamed up with Shaquille O’Neal to promote his brand.
(Speaking of Shaquille O’Neal, he replaced Schnatter as the new face of Papa Johns, a savvy business move (he joined the company as an investor and member of the board of directors as well) and the next step on his road to commercial dominance. On any given day, in addition to seeing Shaq in Papa John’s commercials, you’ll see him team up with cartoon characters to promote Frosted Flakes and The General car insurance. He’s also the face of Icy Hot, Gold Bond, Epson printers, and, on a long enough timeline, literally everything that can be bought and sold. Mark my words, the first thing you’ll see when you enter the lobby of your hotel on Mars will be a life-sized cardboard cutout of Shaquille O’Neal telling you to enjoy your stay, provided he’s not available to be there in person.)
State Farm demonstrated one of the many benefits to the “actor as fictional character” when they simply replaced their old “Jake from State Farm” with another “Jake from State Farm” one day without ever publicly addressing it. Did the first “Jake from State Farm” get into some serious legal trouble that forced him out? We don’t know and we don’t care, because “Jake from State Farm” isn’t a real guy. On the other hand, do you think we’re ever getting another Jared from Subway? I can assure you that we are most certainly not. Should they ever decide to hire another regular guy to be their spokesperson (I feel pretty comfortable assuming that’s not going to happen), you’re definitely not getting that gig if your name is Jared. In fact, if a competing sandwich shop wanted to hire a non-celebrity, regular guy spokesperson, you wouldn’t get that job either, because nobody wants anyone named Jared telling them a thing about sandwiches anymore, no matter which company assembled them. Meanwhile, if the woman from the Popeyes commercial gets caught running a fight club or something, they’ll have somebody else in that apron the next day, smiling and talking about red beans and rice like nothing ever happened. You tell me, is the “regular guy” spokesperson really worth all that trouble?
Honestly, as human spokespeople continue to ruin everything, maybe it’s time for everyone to consider going with mascots. Chick-Fil-A uses cows to promote their chicken (which is fairly clever), Starkist uses Charlie the Tuna (which is an abomination), and their respective ad campaigns are doing just fine. No matter how off-putting I personally find them to be (extremely), nobody’s going through any drama based on what those bears from the toilet paper commercials are getting into, either. (But seriously — I get that they’re selling toilet paper, but they’re just way too caught up with using the bathroom for my liking. And why do they have a proper bathroom anyway? Why not keep them in the woods, where I’d been led to believe a bear typically takes care of these sorts of things? And why do they have commercials where they’re talking about keeping their underwear clean? Underwear is canon in the Charmin Bear Universe, but they’re never wearing anything at all. Do they strip for the commercials? It’s not right, none of it.)
You can choose from any number of legitimate reasons as to why Chuck E. Cheese’s would go out of business in this day and age, but you’ll also know without a shadow of doubt that it’s not because a cartoon mouse was overhead casually dropping racial slurs at work, and that’s the kind of guarantee you can only get from an animated mascot. Now, should you choose to pull on that thread a bit and actually begin making a list of legitimate reasons to longer have Chuck E. Cheese’s, let’s start with this one:
Who needed that, and furthermore, what’s the endgame here that whatever goblin created this had in mind, exactly? What’s a more disturbing possibility, that this backstory was created so it could be shared with children, or that it was created alongside a plan to *smiles while tapping his fingers together to create the creepiest expression in the history of all mankind* “never tell the children?”
While we’re on the subject, why do people have a thing for creating lovable rodents, making them orphans, and forcing them to put on a show for the rest of us? First Alvin and the Chipmunks got it, then Chuck E. Cheese, and if Stuart Little wasn’t so small, you know he would’ve at least had a mixtape or something out by now too. And by the way, that Stuart Little thing only applies to the movie version, because in the original book, Stuart was just a dude from a regular old human family who had:
1.The size and appearance of a tiny little mouse, and
2. Non-dead parents.
When they made the movie and turned him into a cuddly animated character, those monsters were like “Okay, that’s enough with the feel-good, let’s kill this guy’s folks” and knocked them off in a grocery store accident. Why must childhood trauma be a prerequisite for our animated rodents? It doesn’t have to be this way, people.
Which of course, brings us back to John Schnatter. No longer the pizza chain’s CEO, and certainly not the spokesman, Schnatter’s now “the guy who used to be ‘Papa John,’” and that’s assuming this “20 months to stop saying the N-word” thing doesn’t really stick. He’s aided by the fact that it’s more difficult for him to keep our attention these days, however, based on all the commercials and pizza boxes bearing his likeness, I’m guessing increased anonymity isn’t something he necessarily considers a blessing. After all, he’s just like Sam “Ace” Rothstein — he could’ve stayed with the food and beverage job, but instead chose to get out there and start juggling on TV, trying to entertain the people when someone else could’ve easily been trusted to do so. If some ad agency had drawn up a cartoon rabbit with floppy ears and an unnecessarily dark back story, Papa John is still King of Pizza Land, cashing huge checks and apparently saying the N-word all the livelong day. But now he’s off the team, Shaq’s leading the charge to victory, and John Schnatter is alone with one simple truth:
None of this ever happens if Papa John is a cartoon dog.