The continued success of Lay’s Potato Chips makes absolutely no sense in the year 2014. They are still the world’s most popular chip with $3.25 billion in sales…yet they are still completely awful. So who exactly buys them?
We are in the golden age of chips. Just about every single market, deli, bodega, sandwich shoppe, concession stand, convenience store, and gas station has a robust selection. There are mass-market brands like Pringles and Ruffles (also owned by Frito-Lay); excellent mid-market purveyors like Cape Cod and Kettle Brand; and even obscure gourmet offerings made from organic potatoes out of a former matzo factory in Bushwick. And, all of them are better than those overly thin, overly greasy, blandly-flavored industry leaders currently controlling 60—60!—percent of the potato-chip market.
Lay’s are the “complimentary USA Today in front of your hotel room” of potato chips.
Look, I understand the consumption of cheap, assembly-line products when it comes to certain foodstuffs. Few people would argue Bud Light is quote-unquote “better” than countless craft brews, but it is cheaper and more accessible than those obscure nano-saisons. And what one-percenter whackjobs are buying $12 jars of small-batch pickles when Vlasic are plenty good enough, and like three bucks for a jar as big as an oil drum?
The same holds true for soda, beef jerky, even bacon. But chips are hardly the kind of luxury item where artisanal versions are that much harder-to-find or higher-priced than their mass-market counterparts. At my corner bodega, a small bag of “Classic” Lay’s goes for 79 cents. Similarly sized bags of Kettle Brand, “Dirty” Chips, and other high-quality crisps are about a dime more and about a million times better. Why would anyone opt for Lay’s?
My wife says I’m being classist. Check your salty snacking privilege! But, believe me, this aversion has nothing to do with economics, because even the lower-end chips on the market (your Utz’s, your Herr’s, your generic store brand) are better than Lay’s. When I’m in a “bad neighborhood” and peckish, I’ll always opt for that fifty-cent bag of Wise Ridgies over the higher-priced Lay’s.
I’d always felt this 77-year-old brand was the worst, but Lay’s recent Do Us a Flavor contests are now utter proof, the desperate marketing machinations of corporate execs trying to revive their dying brand. They’ve done this by lamely partnering with people like Eva Longoria and releasing total crisis-of-confidence flavors like Cappuccino and Mango Salsa. Meanwhile, Kettle Brand has been quietly coming out with some incredible variants like Sweet & Salty, Maple Bacon, and Sriracha. Is this not proof enough we should abandon Lay’s once and for all?!
Maybe we already have. I have a theory no one actually is buying them. I suspect Lay’s are the “complimentary USA Today in front of your hotel room” of potato chips. USA Today is the third-most circulated newspaper in America, but most people only consume it when it’s free with their continental breakfast. Likewise, most people only open a bag of Lay’s when it comes gratis with their Italian hero. Even still, I’d prefer to step over that crummy newspaper and catch up with current events via my iPhone. And I’d much rather spend an extra buck to buy some decent potato chips to pair with my sandwich.
Aaron Goldfarb (@aarongoldfarb) is the author of The Guide for a Single Man and The Guide for a Single Woman.