Flamin' Hot Lies

In the 1959 Alfred Hitchcock movie North By Northwest Cary Grant plays an advertising executive caught up in a web of espionage and intrigue.

In one of the earlier establishing scenes, grand and his secretary are rushing down Madison avenue (presumably) while she dutifully takes down notes.  At one point, complaining of walking, he steals a cab by making up a story about her not feeling well. When his secretary tells Grant the man obviously knew he was lying, his answers her with a line that still sums up the advertising and marketing world more than sixty years later: "In the world of advertising, there's no such thing as a lie. There's only expedient exaggeration."

Why ascend the ladder slowly when you can lie your way to the top?

I was reminded of this quote when reading an article in the L.A. Times about Richard Montañez called The Man Who Didn't Invent Flamin' Hot Cheetos.

You've most likely seen variations of his story passed around your LinkedIn feed over the past few years. A Frito-Lay janitor had a vision to come up with a new snack that would appeal to the growing Hispanic market.

Despite backstabbers and other obstacles in his way, Montañez's determination never wavered. And after a presentation that would have made Don Draper cry, Montañez was lauded for his efforts, Flamin' Hot Cheetos became a runway success, and he leapt up the corporate ladder. 

Montañez's rags-to-riches story is readymade for Hollywod and indeed a movie about his life is in the works. It has all the feel-good moments we cherish, especially in 2021 when advertising industry is suddenly more interested than ever about diversity and inclusion.

Montañez is working on a second memoir that will no doubt look great on a CMO's bookshelf. And his team-building speeches at corporate seminars net him anywhere from 10 to 50K per appearance.

The problem is that Montañez had about as much to do with the invention of Flamin' Hot Cheetos as I did. 

The L.A. Times reached out to Frito-Lay to inquire about his role in the fabled snack brand and the company's response is sobering:

“None of our records show that Richard was involved in any capacity in the Flamin’ Hot test market,” Frito-Lay wrote in a statement to The Times, in response to questions about an internal investigation whose existence has not been previously disclosed. “We have interviewed multiple personnel who were involved in the test market, and all of them indicate that Richard was not involved in any capacity in the test market.”

“That doesn’t mean we don’t celebrate Richard,” the statement continued, “but the facts do not support the urban legend.”

The reality is that Flamin’ Hots wasn't created by one humble janitor but a R&D team working out of Frito-Lay's corporate offices in Texas, in 1989.  And though it was a team who created the snack, it was Lynne Greenfeld who came up with the Flamin’ Hot name and shepherded the line into existence. Her name faded into obscurity until now. When Greenfield saw the myth spreading in 2018, she contacted the company.

This triggered "a company investigation. That process unearthed evidence calling his account into question and led the company to the conclusion it shared with The Times: “We value Richard’s many contributions to our company, especially his insights into Hispanic consumers, but we do not credit the creation of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos or any Flamin’ Hot products to him.”

The L.A. Times even tracked down as many people as they could find who worked on the product and not one of them recalled his inspiring tale taking place. Some former employees recalled the actual development taking place in Chicago. And perhaps the most damning testimony of all came from a man named Fred Lindsay who claims it was his work that ultimately got the spicier snacks out there.

The L.A. Times even pinpoints the moment it went from internal idea to test market-- and the agency responsible for the marketing.

"An internal promotional video for the Cheetos brand from the first quarter of 1991 serves as further proof that Flamin’ Hots were already out in the world.

The nearly nine-minute video, which Lukaska shared with The Times, is a Day-Glo green-and-pink time capsule, with Frito-Lay execs in fashionably baggy suits touting the latest and greatest snack aimed at kids, Cheetos Paws. At one point, two DDB Needham advertising executives perform a “New Jack City”-era rap about the coolness of Chester himself. Flamin’ Hots appear in the video for less than a second, in a rapid-fire slideshow set to MC Hammer’s “U Can’t Touch This,” alongside two other minor brands of the day, Cheetos Curls and Cheetos Light."

Montañez's version of the story is even off by a few years which is something that was easily verifiable  He claims he was inspired by Frito-Lay's then CEO Roger Enrico's motivational video to develop his Flamin' Hot presentation, a story Montañez recounts in his memoir. The problem is that Roger Enrico wasn't at Frito-Lay when the product was developed and only joined the company after the products were out in test markets.

Greenfield, the woman  who was ultimately responsible for leading the team who brought the idea to market responded to the Times by saying “It is disappointing that 20 years later, someone who played no role in this project would begin to claim our experience as his own and then personally profit from it.”

In 2019, Montañez retired from the company apparently at the suggestion of former CEO Al Carey, who still believes in the story, but suggested “Montañez step down to avoid the conflict of interest that is being paid to give motivational speeches while still employed. Carey's quote appears to suggest he realizes the story has been embellished.

“I said this is a fun story; this shouldn’t be a controversial story; your inclination to dramatize the story a little bit, you’ve got to keep away from that.” 

In fairness to Montañez, it is true started as a plant worker and he did pitch several products including Flamin' Hot Popcorn and Lime and Chile Fritos. And he did leave the plant and make it to a director-level position. Which is an incredible achievement for a high school drop out.

But what kind of achievement does one have unless there's a sticky story attached, one that garners social media attention, one that can easily be embellished when the need suits.

As for Frito-Lay, the company did investigate the origin story after Greenfield sent an email complaint in 2018. But because decades have passed, and Montañez retired in 2019, they let the investigation drop, but after making an announcement that they do not assign credit to any one person for flavor developments as it is always a team effort.

Ideas are tricky. They are often a group effort, and not the product of one mind. Especially now that 'creative scrums," and "brainstorm sessions," and "collaboration," is the norm. Still, most people who did take part can at least point to their contribution.

But many of you who work in advertising have no doubt experienced a version of someone taking credit for something they had no hand in creating in one form or another. Advertising is littered with a bunch of hacks who felt that work could go into their books just because they were "in the room."

 I can specifically point to two award-winning campaigns in my book where this was true. One person who is now an ECD not only wasn't in the room when we came up with the idea, but he also didn't art direct or write it and he wasn't on the shoot, either. And yet there it is in his book.

In one of the last pre-pandemic freelance jobs I had, before going full-time again, a member of the social media team put our broadcast work in their book. In one of the rare instances of comeuppance, a C-suite level executive found out and demanded they remove it.

At that point though, it didn't matter; the social media team-member had moved on to a different agency with a promotion.   

Even if Montañez admitted he had little if anything to do with Flamin' Hot Cheetos, the damage has already been done and his star has already ascended. It's good old-fashioned American cutthroat corporate business as usual. There is little doubt he sleeps well at night, on a spicy bed.  

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