Or, why is this microwavable lasagna company selling me pajamas?
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assorted merchandise from frito lay, jimmy dean, and arby's
Credit: Frito Lay, Arby's, Jimmy Dean

If you're a regular reader of this space, you may have noticed an uptick in some unconventional product offerings from a variety of brands. The same companies who would normally sell you everything from frozen food to salad dressing to even garbage bags suddenly seem convinced that we also want to adorn ourselves in their clothing. 

Though there's been the occasional branded merch to pop up in years past, it seems like the trend towards wearing what we eat has surely accelerated amid the pandemic. And when you look at both the brands latching onto this trend, the particular merch they're slinging, and the conditions of the current moment, the fact that you can buy an unsettling Cheetos sweatsuit on the internet becomes easier to understand. 

cheeto jumpsuit and smartfood hat from frito lay online shop
Credit: Frito Lay

First, there were the earlier pioneers in unexpected branded merch from food companies, who likely sensed an opportunity to either drum up some free publicity (guilty as charged) and make some extra cash from devoted fans. Those brands include Jimmy Dean sausage, who've offered goodies like sausage-scented wrapping paper for three years in a row. Since at least 2018, Hidden Valley Ranch has also offered everything from zesty holiday sweatshirts to tree toppers for those who wanted to celebrate ranchmas. 

As you might've gathered, these sorts of things were mostly confined to the holidays in years past, a time of year where fun, kitschy stuff works perfectly as a lighthearted Secret Santa gift for devoted sausage or ranch fans. But in 2020, everything changed. For many, lockdowns and a shift to working from home (or worse, furloughs and unemployment) meant that what we wore when not on the occasional Zoom meeting was driven solely by our own desires for comfort and pure self-expression. 

With Americans suddenly dressing more casually than ever, it seems that many brands sensed an opportunity to get the name and likenesses of their foods or boxed wines onto people. Franzia, for example, has a whole line of loungewear perfect for nights on the couch with a box of Chillable Red. Stouffer's similarly has a whole store selling mac & cheese-printed sweatsuits and lasagna-patterned pajama sets. At a time when people suddenly found themselves sitting at home eating more cereal, General Mills collaborated with apparel brand Champion on a line of comfortable tees and sweatshirts honoring Lucky Charms, Wheaties, and other favorites. 

stouffer's lasagna long and short-sleeved shirts
Credit: Stouffer's

Similarly, there's no denying that other forms of 2020 merchandise are uniquely suited for the moment. Heinz and Arby's are among multiple brands to come out with 1,000-piece puzzles capable of killing a few hours, though Arby's gets the slight edge for the fact that you can call their product a "meat puzzle." On the other side of the work-life balance equation, Jimmy Dean is giving out golden earbuds meant for Zoom calls, and Cholula teamed up with Simplehuman to put a contactless hot sauce dispenser in your kitchen. 

Even when we venture out into the world, the food brands are still with us in ways that would've felt like something out of a dystopian novel just a year ago. Though it surely makes sense in the context of a global pandemic and a world where brands will try anything to gain some viral attention, Hormel's bacon-scented face mask still feels like a wildly strange concept once you zoom out even a tiny bit.

So why all the food-related merch? Perhaps it comes down to our need for comfort. Just as heating up a microwavable serving of mac and cheese can be an easy way to steal a fleeting moment of joy during a year defined by monotony, so too could buying a Stouffer's shirt that says "mac & cheese is self-care" or a Lay's branded scarf is a way to literally embody the comfort foods we've consumed. In a sense, what's already inside of us is now represented on the outside, and the fact that this apparel is so often warm and cozy can't hurt our affinity from the large corporations who sold them to us. 

franzie christmas sweater and wine backpack
Credit: Franzia

There's also the idea that people fortunate enough to not be too stressed about their finances right now have occasionally just felt like buying random crap to give themselves something to look forward to. The power of this sort of aimless capitalism can't be discounted, as the anticipation of any kind of package like this creates a sense of anticipation for the future when none would otherwise exist. At a time when the experiences that normally make life worth living are forbidden or even impossible, novel commodities will have to take their place. 

Obviously there isn't yet much public data about how many (or even if) people are actually snatching up these various branded tie-ins, but the fact that so many of them even exist in the first place is a testament to these strange times we're living through. It's hard to say how many of us would be willing to wear any of this out in public once a vaccine allows for a return to normal life, but that's a problem to worry about in 2021. Who knows, though. Maybe by then we'll just be wearing trash bags.