Giving up the GHOST
Toward a unified theory of childishness
It’s a weekday, which means another early morning workout. Before leaving the door, I scan for the essentials: work bag, change of clothes, lunch, an array of probiotic beverages I’ve come to believe are essential to my wellbeing. Crucially, two scoops of whey protein powder in a blender bottle. I sift through a series of nondescript, nearly-empty black plastic tubs to find the powder of the day; it looks like a bin of candy. The label design calls to mind graffiti-style doodles from a middle schooler who has just mastered the cool S, an imagery rendered all the more evocative by the fact that the protein powder appears to be a brand collaboration with Oreo. GHOST, the label reads. The powder itself appears to have chunks of Oreo cookies inside of it.
At the gym, I see the usual morning crowd: the bleary-eyed working stiffs, the rapidly aging racing against their destinies, the bodybuilders, grim and austere. Like clockwork, near the end of my workout, a tastefully tattooed man in a cutoff walks in and plops his duffel bag on the artificial turf. He is one of the only people I see that morning who has a body remotely worth aspiring toward. Before launching into his workout, he retrieves a small container of GHOST-branded Swedish Fish pre-workout and pours a scoop directly into his mouth.
Later that morning, I share a cramped jail visitation cell with two parole officers. On the other side of the glass sits my client, shackled, whose freedom these men hold in their hands. If you have never had the misfortune of dealing with a parole officer, then you can only trust that these men looked how you would imagine parole officers to look: garish tattoos, papery skin, sunglasses nestled into polos, hulking Apple Watches on steroidal forearms. They call me “bro.” Mid way through the proceeding, I note with an overpowering sense of dread that the hearing officer is drinking a tall, yellow-red can of GHOST’s Sour Patch Kids Redberry energy drink. On the can, which advertises no sugar, a red Sour Patch Kid waves to me; the hearing officer begins the sentence with which he denies my client’s release from jail with “I’m gonna keep it one hundred with you.”
What is GHOST, and why is it everywhere? The company’s website is of no help:
“GHOST® in its simplest form is the world's first lifestyle sports nutrition brand. The name GHOST® and mantra "be seen" come from that feeling of being behind the scenes and wanting to be heard, wanting to make an impact; we're all ghosts. This is our time.”
GHOST’s protein powder containers clarify that GHOST Whey “was conceived to feed savagery around the clock,” promising that the powder is “versatile AF.” The energy drinks are touted as the “fully transparent, fully loaded energy drink we’ve all been waiting for,” promising no sugar, no artificial coloring, and “no BS.” In its commitment to no BS, GHOST Energy offers 1000mg of CARNIUPURE® CARNITINE, 200mg of natural caffeine, 100mg of NeuroFactor™, and 100% of 4 daily vitamins per can in ten epic flavors: Citrus, Warheads Sour Watermelon, Tropical Mango, Sour Patch Kids Redberry, Sour Patch Kids Blue Raspberry, Orange Cream, Swedish Fish, Warheads Sour Green Apple, Cherry Limeade, and the gaming-clan collaboration “Faze Pop.”
GHOST Lifestyle, as the company calls itself, has become hugely popular; while not yet inescapable, it’s not hard to imagine a world in which the candy-flavored sport and energy beverage products become ubiquitous. GHOST is not the first brand of its sort to experience a surge in visibility and popularity. Nor, for what it’s worth, is it the first to adhere to an incredibly vapid brand identity—these things are par for the course. Where GHOST departs from its predecessors and competitors, however, is in its commitment to tailoring the identity of a “nutrition” brand to an imagined audience of eleven-year-olds in 1995. The “sports nutrition landscape,” such as it is, tends to adhere to one of two modes. On the one hand, there is the sleek, sexy design of Red Bull and its progeny, a brand that is intentionally “adult,” preoccupied with marking its territory in the realm of cultural production, one half of a popular if regrettable bar order. On the other, there is what one might call the Monster Approach: vaguely gamer-coded, but adhering strictly to the dominant ethos of products predominantly sold to men. These energy drinks, and the overwhelming majority of protein powders, employ a familiar, pseudo-heavy-metal, balls-to-the-wall, don’t-be-a-pussy shock tactic. Energy drinks and protein powders are marketed as intense because their imagined male consumer is intense, no, more, a beast, a savage, a primal force constrained only by societal niceties and a fear of pain. Advertisers think men really like beards, axes, chain links. There’s not much new to say on the subject of gendered marketing—Greta Gerwig spent the weakest parts of Barbie making this abundantly clear—but it structures the sports nutrition marketplace all the same.
What, then, to make of the emergence of GHOST—a brand which, surely, trades in motifs of savagery but markets, first and foremost, in the register of childhood? Parts of GHOST’s ascendance make intuitive sense: coffee prices have quietly skyrocketed to the point of unaffordability, it’s become hip to prioritize one’s fitness, there exists an ascendant movement of people taking seriously the things they put in their bodies.1 What makes far less sense is why these coinciding tendencies, each in their own right relatively adult, appear to have elevated to prominence a brand that treats its consumers like children in desperate, unbearable need for treats.
In May, I wrote similarly about Elf Bars, the obvious analogue for hugely popular, likely toxic, child-coded products sold to adults. Like Elf Bars, GHOST products are outlandishly colorful, aesthetically playful if cringeworthy, “unconcerned with the appearance of propriety.” Where Elf Bar flavors evoke imaginary childhood concoctions, GHOST products mimic the poison that characterized the childhood in the first place. As previously mentioned, GHOST boasts official brand partnerships with a suite of candy purveyors, from Sour Patch Kids to Warheads, from Oreo to Nutter Butter, Swedish Fish to Chips Ahoy, Cinnabon to Sonic. A recent collaboration with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IP has products a flavor of preworkout called “Ooze.” If physical exercise, at its best, offers you the opportunity to bring your mind and body into accord through discipline, challenge, and intention, GHOST’s adult knows neither rules nor concern. To be active, GHOST tells you, is to become your best self, and your best self is a grown kid with no parents to tell you when it’s bedtime. Of course, as with Elf Bars, none of this ideological steerage would be possible if the product itself wasn’t regrettably delicious; at the moment of writing, I’ve found myself distinctly craving two scoops of Peanut Butter Cereal Milk Whey Protein.
Where the appeal of the Elf Bar is ultimately the “pure nihilistic hedonism” of saccharine, colorful poison, GHOST products are at least nominally meant to support a “healthy” lifestyle (of course, it bears repeating that a scan of the ingredients list leaves you wondering, ethical and environmental caveats notwithstanding, whether you might not be better off getting your protein from animals). Still, the two super-brands point toward something like a unified theory of childishness: the way in which modern adults are increasingly being marketed to, and are acting, like children. You can see this childishness everywhere: everything, increasingly, is nostalgia; the scene regeneration cycle has sped up precipitously; the biggest box office films of the year are, with the exception of Oppenheimer and the QAnon pedophile movie, animated, superhero franchises, or about a plastic doll. A theory, incomplete as it is, comes borrowed from Sean Monahan writing in The Guardian: “Millennials went into lockdown still feeling young, but they came out shocked to find the first cohort of Zoomers now ruling the roost.” Might, then, the unified theory of childishness not just be that a generation of millennials, who still view themselves as young adults robbed of their twilight years by pandemic isolation, now totally disoriented by the cultural dominance of Gen Z, have reverted to a sort of exaggerated juvenilia to cope? Something like: if we can’t be the cool adults, and don’t feel ready to be the boring adults, then we just won’t be adults at all? Something like: the kids seem fluent in hypermaximalist, almost schizophrenic irony, so why can’t we try it, too? Something like: it’s getting harder to find the energy for morning workouts as I get older, but with a scoop of Bubblicious Strawberry Splash pre-workout by GHOST lifestyle, I feel more energized than I have since I was a child playing in the yard? Something like: who died and made you the boss, the person who decided that adults can’t have their cake and eat it too?
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If GHOST’s candy-themed brand partnerships weren’t already a warning sign, a careful read of GHOST’s ingredients casts a significant amount of doubt on the notion that the products are “good,” so to speak, for you.