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If you reach into a bag of Cheetos and pull out a snack that looks like a penis with a pair of testicles dangling from its base, you have about three options: you can pop in into your mouth and crunch it without comment; you can hold it up and announce “This one looks like a dick” before eating it; or you can put it aside and eventually list it on eBay with a title like “Cheeto Shaped Penis Balls Perfect Humor Oddity” or “Cheeto Shaped Like a Penis ULTRA RARE” or even “Cheetos Puffs Shaped Penis Can't Get Any Better Than This Wow My 8 yr old Found.”
As of this writing, there are more than a dozen eBay listings for Cheetos shaped like dicks, and they aren’t “ULTRA RARE” regardless of how many capital letters the sellers use in the description. They’re also just a fraction of the listings for Cheetos shaped like… a little bit of everything, from genitals and guns and Game of Thrones characters to what I’m calling ‘Choose Your Own Adventure Cheetos,’ where one seller’s cheese-dusted snack can be either Tom Brady, Jesus, the Pope, a priest, Nosferatu, a zombie, a mummy, or a non-standard version of fellatio, depending on what you see—and what you’d be willing to pay him $76,000 for. The price points for the Cheetos range from the realistic (99 cents) to the aspirational ($899,999), and as bonkers as that is, it’s not difficult to see why somebody might think that a single snack that looks vaguely like an Alien chestburster might be their artificially flavored secret to financial freedom.
Last week, Doritos Australia paid a 13-year-old girl AU$20,000 ($14,663) after her ‘puffy’ Dorito went viral on TikTok—and after her eBay listing was pulled down by the auction site for violating its food policy. Last month, a McDonald’s Chicken McNugget shaped like an Among Us video game character sold for $99,997 on eBay. And perhaps the auction that kicked this extremely dumb thing off was the Harambe-shaped Cheeto that sold for $99,900 in early 2017. (Although the auction closed at almost $100 grand, the actual sale price was most likely significantly less—but more on that in a sec.) The potential for a five-or-six figure payout was all Rey León could see when he watched his friend snag an oddly shaped Cheeto from an open bag. “We were at a little football house party, and my homegirl was about to put that Cheeto in her mouth,” he told VICE. “I’m watching her, and it looked pretty strange. It was centimeters away from her just devouring it, but I remembered watching something about this Cheeto trend, so I got it from her hand. When I really looked at it, I thought ‘Holy shit, this looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, biceps up in the air, just boom’ so I put it in a cup and stored it away in a cabinet.”
León spent some time investigating “the Cheeto market” on eBay, and after being underwhelmed by the other listings, he put the Schwarzenegger Cheeto up for sale. “I went on eBay and looked at what they had, and I’m like ‘Man, this blows everything out the water,” he said. “This is a really dope Cheeto.” The Schwarzenegger Cheeto is currently listed at $20,000, although León was quick to point out that 10 percent of that sale price will be donated to charity (and $5,000 will go to his friend Jayne who almost ate it). He also seems optimistic that he might find a buyer. He has received “tons of offers”—most of them were $420—and someone actually bought the Cheeto at its previous $10,000 asking price, but they never paid up. Blake Recker hopes that his Elvis-shaped Cheeto will help pay his college tuition. “I was looking for Cheetos to list on eBay, and my dad uncovered one that looked like Elvis,” he told VICE in an email. “At first, I didn’t see Elvis, until my dad showed me a picture that had an amazing resemblance to [the Cheeto].” Recker said that his dad set the asking price for that Cheeto at $100,000, based on its size and its (however tenuous) connection to the eternal icon. He also has listings for a smaller Cheeto shaped like the Twitter logo ($50,000) and like Yukon Cornelius, from the classic Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer stop-motion special ($21,000). “All of these listings, and the profits from these listings are going towards my college,” he said. “The highest offer I’ve gotten so far was $25, but that offer was retracted. I haven’t sold any other Cheetos because of how high the price is, but I’m hopeful.”
Despite the handful of high-profile outliers, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of investment—if that’s the right word for buying a gently used Cheeto—in these items. That’s probably for good reason. “I don't think there is much of a secondary market for these food objects that, through random error, take the form of Jesus or whatever,” Jon Warren, the founder and CEO of collectible buyer 2nd Markets, said. “I don’t think the person that paid $100,000 is going to get even $10,000 should they decide to sell that item. At times, the collectibles market operates on the greater fool theory, and who’s the greater fool for that Frito?” (When I asked Warren whether he would be interested in appraising or making an offer for a Cheeto, he didn’t hesitate before saying no. There was no elaboration, no conditional quantifiers, just a flat, across-the-board no.) Warren says that although it might be possible to have some of those high-dollar snack foods insured—“Lloyds of London will insure just about anything”—he would be concerned about the possibility of fraud, of an unscrupulous buyer or seller swapping out a ‘regular’ weird Cheeto for the ‘real’ weird Cheeto. “I’ve been in this business for 40 years and I've been around long enough to have seen just about everything,” he said. “And sometimes I question the validity of these prices, and these auction events where something sells for a huge sum on eBay. I just don't trust it. I think there could be shill bidding, and collusion involved in some cases just to get a story out—but I could be wrong about that.”
He’s probably not wrong, at least when it comes to items maybe not selling for the closing price, or for the price that snagged all the headlines. That $99,997 Harambe-shaped Cheeto is a good example. The Los Angeles Times reported that the winning bidder “had second thoughts and backed out,” so eBay went through the other 132 bids to see who would be willing to pay what. (VICE contacted the seller for comment, but did not receive a response.) And some of the interest in Cheetos Shaped Like Other Shit wasn’t driven by the market as much as it was pushed by Cheetos itself. Five years ago, Cheetos was inspired by a couple of Cheetos-related Instagram accounts to launch its “Cheetos Museum” campaign, which promised four $10,000 weekly prizes and one $50,000 grand prize to customers who submitted the best, or funniest, or most interesting Cheeto shaped like another noun. (And yes, it can be kind of jarring to realize that this is what Frito-Lay was focusing on, instead of the allegedly appalling working conditions at some of its production facilities, which contributed to an employee strike earlier this month.)
The contest received more than 100,000 entries, and a Texas woman ended up $50 grand richer because she found a Hot Cheeto that looked like a cat. The Cheetos Museum thing also turned into a big win for Cheetos too: PR Week reported that the Cheetos website saw a 525 percent increase in traffic the month that the campaign launched, it scored 4,831 Museum-related media placements, and the Frito-Lay-via-PepsiCo owned snack brand also had its biggest sales week ever (!!!) as a result.
Unsurprisingly, it re-ran the contest again the following summer, giving $50,000 to a woman who pulled a unicorn-shaped snack out of her bag of Cheetos. Another 100,000 people submitted their entries, the online Cheetos Museum became an IRL temporary exhibition at the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not museum in Times Square, and the ad agency behind the campaign picked up a silver Clio award and two Gold PR Lions at Cannes. But hope remains a powerful thing, especially the hope that someone at Frito-Lay with access to a comically oversized check will scroll through eBay, see your baby seal-shaped Cheeto and send you a ridiculous amount of money. “I originally listed my Cheeto on eBay in hopes the Cheeto company would somehow notice it,” an eBay seller named shauns_store said of his $899,999 listing. “I understand the price is absurdly high. I get a few offers that are $10,000-plus each week but it’s hard to gauge if they are serious offers or not. I typically just assume they aren’t.” Just before I finished this piece, I got an email from eBay, telling me I had received a seller’s special offer. That Elvis-shaped Cheeto, it said, could be mine for $95,000.