After winning the Pop-Tarts Bowl on Dec. 28 in Orlando, Fla., Kansas State’s football team gathered on the field around a garage-size toaster that was protected by a pair of mall cops wearing “Snack Security” shirts.
An unusual chant erupted — “Toast that mascot! Toast that mascot!” — as Strawberry, a giant Pop-Tart with limbs, climbed to the top of the toaster, bopping along to the disco-era beat of “Hot Stuff,” by Donna Summer.
“We will always love you, Strawberry,” the announcer Jason Ryan Perry said over the stadium’s public address system. “Can’t wait to eat you.”
For nearly three hours, Strawberry had worked the crowd as one of the surprise stars of the game — and of the entire college bowl season, which was no small feat for an anthropomorphized breakfast pastry. By the time Strawberry tossed aside a sign that read “Dreams Really Do Come True” so that it could happily slide through a slot and have its crust toasted to golden-brown perfection, the internet was about to crater.
Sure enough, Strawberry soon emerged from the toaster as an edible version of itself. The victorious players pounced, gorging themselves on Strawberry by the handful until all that was left — R.I.P., Strawberry — was its left eye.
“I think those guys were really hungry,” Heidi Ray, the senior director of brand marketing for Pop-Tarts, said in a telephone interview.
In a crowded marketplace, the Pop-Tarts Bowl — renamed this year after having previously been the Cheez-It Bowl, the Camping World Bowl and several other monikers — managed to do something special: elevate an otherwise ordinary game into a viral sensation.
Michigan and Washington will face off in the College Football Playoff national championship game Monday night, but in an era in which there are more than 40 bowl games a season, with only two of them — the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl, serving as national championship semifinals — carrying any sort of significance, the Pop-Tarts Bowl won the internet.
Or, at the very least, it shared the internet championship with the Duke’s Mayo Bowl.
From a competitive standpoint, the playoff system, which made its debut in 2014 and will add quarterfinal games next year, has rendered the other bowls into artifacts of a bygone era when they meant more to teams — and to their conferences — than they do now. As a result, many prominent players with N.F.L. aspirations opt out of the games if there is nothing on the line.
None of that has slowed a steady drumbeat in favor of even more bowl games, which generate decent ratings and advertising revenue around the holidays.
With so many mostly meaningless bowls — the Guaranteed Rate Bowl and the Bad Boy Mowers Pinstripe Bowl, the Radiance Technologies Independence Bowl and the Avocados from Mexico Cure Bowl — the most intense competition is not necessarily between teams on the field but among the brands that are hoping for a fleeting (and profitable) moment of virality.
“I think doing it in unique, fun ways is an important way to keep bowls relevant,” said Miller Yoho, the director of marketing and communications for the Charlotte Sports Foundation, which hosts the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. “Honestly, this is the most anyone’s been talking about it in the 10 years I’ve been doing it.”
When Duke’s Mayo, a condiments company based in Richmond, Va., began sponsoring the game in 2020 — it had previously been sponsored by, among others, Meineke Car Care Center — the feeling was that the company “needed to do something different to make mayonnaise cool again,” said Joe Tuza, the condiments president of Sauer Brands, which owns Duke’s Mayo. In partnering with college football, the brand has sought to capitalize on its share of made-for-the-internet moments, both planned and unplanned.
Since 2021, the winning coach of the game has gotten drenched with a cooler full of mayonnaise as Tubby, the brand’s aggressively eyebrowed mascot, triumphantly raises his arms and Mr. Tuza stands nearby with a cartoon-size check. The incentive for the coach is that $10,000 goes to a charity of his choice.
“Every time I’m up onstage with the trophies, the players start chanting, ‘Mayo dump! Mayo dump!’” Mr. Tuza said. “It’s like a payoff for them to see their coach get doused after all the hard work they’ve put in.”
And while various skeptics, including Travis Kelce of the Kansas City Chiefs, a noted mayonnaise hater, have questioned whether it is actually mayonnaise, Mr. Tuza and Mr. Yoho both vouched for its authenticity.
“It’s 100 percent mayonnaise,” Mr. Yoho said. “I’ve smelled it. They have to stir it to get the viscosity right.”
Ahead of this season’s game on Dec. 27, Duke’s Mayo upped the ante by staging a draft-style combine to select the two people who would dump the mayonnaise on the winning coach. (This was lingering fallout from the 2021 game, when Shane Beamer, the coach of South Carolina, was accidentally bonked on the head by the cooler; Duke’s Mayo later sent him a hard hat.) Mr. Yoho said he watched the combine via live feed.
“I just see people covered in mayo trying to catch a football,” he said. “I’m like, ‘What is happening?’”
The extra effort paid off. Duke’s Mayo had a record day of online sales during this year’s game, Mr. Tuza said, and the company expects to generate about $10 million worth of brand exposure, more than doubling its investment.
“Based on the size of our business, it’s a big investment for us,” Mr. Tuza said, “so we really needed to make it work. We had to execute and not just slap our name on the sponsorship.”
Amid a cluttered bowl game landscape, complacency will get you left behind. Bowl season never rests, not entirely. For example, one of the attractions at the Cheez-It Citrus Bowl was a branded hot tub — “Feelin’ the Cheeziest” — that is now available for purchase on eBay, with proceeds going toward the Florida Citrus Sports Foundation. (Condition: used.)
And the day after the Duke’s Mayo Bowl, Mr. Yoho was a part of a text chain with colleagues who were already looking ahead to the 2024 edition of the game. The gist of those messages?
“OK, we just saw the Pop-Tarts Bowl, and it’s game on,” Mr. Yoho recalled.
The Pop-Tarts phenomenon was something to behold, in no small measure because of the exploits of Strawberry, who was played by Barry Anderson, a former mascot for the Chicago Bulls. In its first and only public appearance, Strawberry danced with fans, distributed bite-size versions of itself and welcomed its own demise. (Thanks to the magic of television, Mr. Anderson did not actually toast himself.)
“It far surpassed any of our expectations,” Ms. Ray said, adding: “We didn’t have to fake anything. That’s totally the brand. That’s how we treat social every day of the year. We just brought a little bit of that world to the world of college football.”
And while Strawberry is now the highest-profile individual Pop-Tart in the brand’s 60-year history, Kellanova produces about three billion of the treats annually, Ms. Ray said. In other words, Strawberry was not a one-off. There is more talent in the pipeline.
“Everyone witnessed that Strawberry was consumed by the Wildcats, and he’s happily in mouth heaven because his dreams came true,” Ms. Ray said. “But fear not: This is not the last time you will see an edible Pop-Tart as the mascot.”