What do Jesus, Walt Disney, and Anne Frank have in common? Perhaps this seems like a question that reeks of such absurdity that it’s hardly worth expending even a single gray cell to try to answer it. Believe it or not, this was the unexpected question I was forced to ponder when my spouse and I stopped into a Whole Foods market in Albany, New York, to purchase a few loaves of bread.
I never could have predicted the cognitive challenge that awaited me that day at the most unlikely of places—the checkout counter.
For the average shopper like myself—standing in line to pay for bread or for perfect, unblemished fruits, or perhaps to slap down the big bucks for containers of over-priced ready-mades—the last thing one might have expected to find were the faces of Jesus, Walt, and Anne on the covers of three glossy periodicals in a food store. But there they were, lined up as if they were your run-of-the-mill trio of celebrities sharing a moment of camaraderie. Why those three? Here was an unexpected mystery waiting to be solved.
The question of the meaning behind why such odd bedfellows were placed in juxtaposition has bothered me since that day. Jesus, Walt Disney, and Anne Frank. Just saying their names together inspires a fog of confusion and discomfort. Had the publishers or distributors of these glossies sat around a polished conference table one afternoon sipping lattes, while hatching a conspiracy to intentionally disrupt the relaxing experience of a few minutes of guilt-free food voyeurism? Did they hope to disorient, confuse, and challenge shoppers so thoroughly that they would return to the food palace sooner than expected to try to puzzle out the mystery? Instead of encouraging last-minute impulse buying, had they plotted to encourage an existential crisis?
And why would the marketers bother with disruption when their job was to encourage one final impulse buy at the checkout counter at the end of a shopping experience defined by an endless stream of impulse buys?
I had so many questions and so few answers.
I wondered: Were we now supposed to understand Jesus, Walt, and Anne as celebrity influencers, like the Kardashians? Without being disrespectful, one certainly could make the case for Jesus and Walt Disney. After all, the number of Jesus’s followers grew exponentially as the centuries wore on. By the middle of the twentieth century, there were more than two billion Christians worldwide. That’s a heck of a lot of influence. If you wanted to give an award to one of the greatest influencers of all time, you’d have no choice but to hand the golden chalice to Jesus. Jesus, after all, far outstrips in numbers of followers the most followed Twitter accounts of the number one, two, and three champion influencers today: Katy Perry (106.94 million), Justin Bieber (105.04 million), and Barack Obama (104.36 million).
And what about Walt? Disney arguably was one of the most successful influencers of the modern era. Just consider that Walt, the company he founded, and his heirs have constructed numerous pleasure playgrounds across the globe, and that every year more than 40 million visitors worldwide flock to the sugar-coated fantasy that is the Disney experience.
But then there was Anne. Anne Frank as influencer? I just couldn’t see it.
Next, I wondered whether the life spans of these three icons could have explained their odd cohabitation on the magazine rack. Unfortunately, the mystery wouldn’t be solved with such a simple explanation: Anne lived until the age of 15. Walt lived to the age of 65, and Jesus lived, according to the calculations of Christian scholars, to about the age of 33.
Could the message be that Whole Foods sought a visual signal to crow about their diversity creds? If that were the case, then Anne and Jesus’s Semitic features cohabiting with Walt and Mickey filled in the diversity requirement in a decidedly weird and ironic way. That seemed to be an interesting line of thought, but, unfortunately, one that didn’t seem to adequately solve the mystery.
Descending farther into the black hole of Jesus, Walt, and Anne, I allowed myself to consider whether there might be a hint in all of this about personal tragedy and the cruelty of destiny. Was suffering the thread that united these three? No need to recount the unimaginable cruelties visited on Jesus and Anne, but Walt? Where did Walt fit in?
Confronting this philosophical impasse in such an unlikely place like Whole Foods was leading me to a dark place—as one conundrum piled on top of another conundrum. I had to ask myself: Was this the positive consumer experience Whole Foods was after? The mystery deepened. Why would the expert marketers and purveyors of the pleasures of the palate encourage thoughts about tragedy and destiny?
Finally, in a state of self-imposed obsession, I considered whether this weird juxtaposition might signal something about the trio’s visionary intelligence and rebelliousness. Perhaps these characteristics were those that would solve what seemed to be the unsolvable. As I ticked off what I thought I knew about the lives of the three icons, I began to suspect that I’d finally hit on the key that would unlock the mystery. All three had proved themselves to be out-of-the-box thinkers. Jesus and Walt certainly were visionaries, and Anne, in the words she left us in her diary, proved to be one as well. Each, in their own way, was a true rebel.
A few days ago, my spouse and I returned to Whole Foods to purchase a few more loaves of bread. I walked over to the checkout counter to see if Jesus, Walt, and Anne were still there. They were. But this time they and I seemed more comfortable with their presence together in that unlikely place. The mystery, perhaps, was solved.