Meet Sugar Panda, Ryan Reynolds’ Gross Anti-Sugar Mascot

Highkey - Sugar Panda - Ryan Reynolds

The anti-sugar movement has a new mascot, courtesy of Hollywood star Ryan Reynolds.

Meet Sugar Panda!

Sugar Panda GIF


This cartoon panda is far from adorable. His eyes are baggy. His skinny-fat physique is unsightly. His dental hygiene is simply appalling. Frankly, he’s a mess. He’s a junkie, in fact, a sad sack whose health has been slowly ravaged by decades of sugar addiction. Sugar Panda doesn’t “eat” sugar. He “does” sugar.

Sugar Panda is the new mascot for HighKey, the popular low-carb bakery best known for its mini cookies. He is also the brainchild of Maximum Effort, the marketing agency founded by actor Ryan Reynolds. Reynolds uploaded HighKey’s first Sugar Panda ad to his own YouTube channel last week, just in time for Valentine’s Day:


In the ad, Sugar Panda interrupts a couple enjoying a romantic Valentine’s Day hot tub session, and awkwardly tempts them (“You guys wanna do some sugar?”) with a heart-shaped box of chocolates. He is dismayed to learn that the couple has already planned on enjoying HighKey’s low-sugar treats. He flashes a stupid grin, and a single yellowed tooth tumbles out of his mouth.

The second half of the video flips to a mockery of prescription medicine advertising: “Before deciding if sugar is right for your Valentine, ask yourself if you like them even a little bit. Overconsumption of added sugar can lead to diabetes and heart disease.”

I spoke to Rocio Gordon, HighKey’s Chief Marketing Officer, about the campaign. She told me that the company is pretty serious about its anti-sugar message. “Sugar Panda is truly a cautionary tale about what can happen when we eat too much sugar… this ad is challenging all Americans to eliminate sugar from their diets.”

What’s remarkable about the campaign is how aggressive it is. HighKey approached Reynolds and his collaborators knowing that it wanted a startling and provoking message: “We knew that we needed an out-of-the-box delivery to cut through the clutter and convey the message of ditching sugar from the American diet. The brief to Maximum Effort for this campaign was simple: disrupt. From the beginning of the creation process, Sugar Panda was born. His personality allowed us to deliver the message in an unexpected, disruptive way.”

A second video [parents beware—the humor and language are very mature] quickly explores Sugar Panda’s history of addiction and denial. “I’ve been doing sugar since I was a kid—and I’m crushing life!”, the panda exclaims, eyes bloodshot and pupils dilated, apparently after snorting a line of pure white sugar. Or maybe it was cookie crumbles. Sugar Panda appears to enjoy his drug in multiple forms. This release includes a satirical biography of Sugar Panda, which insists that “Sugar Panda doesn’t have a problem. He’s fine and can stop any time.”

Sugar Panda’s history—his beginning as an adorable fluffy cub before his long, sad demise—makes him an even more savage parody of famous dopey sugar spokesanimals like Tony the Tiger and Toucan Sam. And if you’ve ever heard sugar referred to as “the next cigarettes,” you might also recall the demise of the Marlboro Man, the advertising icon whose portrayers repeatedly died of smoking-related diseases.

While this is ultimately just a clever campaign for online cookie sales, it’s tempting to see Sugar Panda’s debut as a landmark in our changing relationship with sugar. Public and professional awareness of sugar’s detrimental health effects has been growing exponentially in recent years, and it is now fairly common to hear health-conscious parents, for example, refer to sugar as an addictive substance. Sugar Panda, gross and strung out, may be exaggerated and silly, but he’s a representation of the dawning realization that our culture has been and remains deeply addicted to a legitimately harmful substance.

It’s a heavy subject to broach in a cookie ad, but Maximum Effort keeps it light by deploying its acid wit. The company has been called “The Best Ad Agency in America Right Now,” and tends to produce ads and videos with the same type of sardonic and self-aware humor that Reynolds is known for. Some readers may have already noticed that Reynolds himself voices Sugar Panda.

Rocio told me that Reynolds “has been a part of the creative process from the beginning.” Apparently, he was an easy sell on the partnership—the movie star had tried and loved HighKey cookies before the business ever approached them.

Highkey Mini Cookies - Keto Cookies

HighKey is best known for its low-carb mini cookies, which are made with almond flour and alternative sugars. The HighKey mini chocolate chip cookies are Amazon’s single best-seller, outperforming Chips Ahoy and Famous Amos and Oreos and all the rest. A single serving of the chocolate chip mini cookies only has 1 gram of net carbs. The company now has a whole range of low-carb snacks, including breakfast cereals, granola, macaroons and baking mixes, and promises to develop even more.

It’s also worth noting that the ads are not in any way explicitly directed towards low-carb diners. Rocio Gordon: “HighKey is definitely breaking out of the keto niche market. While our products are keto-friendly, our goal is to create delicious products for everyone.”

Rocio told me that there’s more Sugar Panda hilarity on the way. “Keep an eye out on social media for Sugar Panda to make more appearances on your screen.”

Ross Wollen
Ross Wollen

Ross Wollen is a chef and writer based in Maine's Midcoast region. Before moving East, Ross was a veteran of the Bay Area restaurant and artisanal food scenes; he has also worked as a food safety consultant. As executive chef of Belcampo Meat Co., Ross helped launch the bone broth craze. Since his diagnosis with Type 1 diabetes in 2017, he has focused on exploring the potential of naturally low-carb cooking. Follow Ross on Twitter: @RossWollen

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