The human brain searches for recognizable forms in everything from clouds to wood grain, and a fervent online culture has arisen around the uniquely shaped puffed, machine-made cheese wads known as Cheetos. Collecting Cheetos that resemble Michael Jackson or a lobster claw almost makes collecting celebrity hair seem normal, but social acceptance isn’t the issue here. Each Cheeto is one of a kind. Some consider unique ones art. As food and agriculture journalist Tove Danovich shows us in her new piece for The Outline, people charge big bucks for a Cheeto shaped like a penis and a Cheeto shaped like a lizard. In 2017, a Cheeto shaped like Harambe, the gorilla who was shot in the Cincinnati zoo, sold for $99,900 on eBay, though the transaction seems to have been canceled. As Danovich always does so skillfully and humorously, she dives into the cheddary depths of this collector community, dusting herself in orange powder so we can sit at a safe distance enjoying the show. So how did this collector culture start, and who are the people buying these things?
The story of how Cheetos made their way to eBay is a circuitous one but it traces back to Andy Huot, the man behind an Instagram account called @CheeseCurlsofInstagram Huot is a weight-lifting enthusiast who often watches what he eats but one day in 2013 he had a craving for something crunchy and savory. He bought a bag of Cheetos. That’s when everything started falling into place. First he saw a perfect number seven. Then there was a Loch Ness monster, a Sasquatch, a hammerhead shark, and a T-Rex. “Once you find one, you see them everywhere,” he said.
He wanted to share his discoveries with the world, and so he started an Instagram. Within a few months he was added to one of the app’s “ suggested users” list and started getting thousands of followers a day. At its peak, his account had roughly 44,000 followers. He started an Etsy account to sell prints of his Cheeto photos, and was featured in an Intel commercial in 2016, making about $5,000 from what amounts to a hobby. (He tried putting the group of evolving Cheetos on eBay, but they didn’t sell.)
In 2016, Frito-Lay saw the kind of engagement Cheetos could get on the internet and decided to launch a search for artifacts to add to a “Cheetos Museum.” Contestants posted photos of their Cheetos on social media and uploaded them to the museum’s website. There were weekly $10,000 prizes for a month and one $50,000 grand prize for the best Cheeto shape. With more than 100,000 posts it was “one of the brand’s most successful digital engagement programs of all time,” Ryan Matiyow, senior director of marketing at Frito-Lay, told Marketing Daily.