57 Ways to Be Random

Feb. 22, 2022

Turns out there was never anything behind that number.

The “57 Varieties” slogan of what is now Kraft Heinz has been around literally as long as Heinz has been making ketchup. And for most of that time, it has been used as a symbol of randomness.

Joe McCarthy, the red-baiting U.S. senator, supposedly joked that it’s where he got the number of Communists he charged the U.S. State Department with employing. That served as the basis for a scene in the original 1962 version of “The Manchurian Candidate,” where a politician obviously based on McCarthy is having dinner with his wife (the brains of the couple) and complaining that he can’t remember how many Communists were supposed to be where: “If we could only settle on a definite number,” he says, as the camera closes in on his hands shaking a ketchup bottle out onto his plate. Jump-cut to his braying about “fifty-seven Communists.”

Covering this industry for nearly 30 years has robbed me of some cherished illusions about food. But up to now, I managed to cling to one: that there was some rational reason behind “57 Varieties.” Only along comes a recent article from CNN Business blowing that up: It turns out the number really was random.

According to the CNN article, H.J. Heinz – the man himself, not his company – noticed a billboard advertising “21 styles” of shoes and wanted to replicate it. Even though he was selling canned pickles, horseradish and other products in addition to ketchup (and was known at the time as “the pickle king”), he had nowhere close to 57 varieties collectively, let alone of ketchup.

So he apparently settled on 57 because of its appeal. According to the ketchup’s current brand manager, it was because 5 was his wife’s “lucky number” and 7 was his; according to a contemporary biography, it was just because of the number 7 and “its alluring significance to people of all ages and races.”

The number may have been random, but through the years, Heinz has worked hard to cement it into the public consciousness. Not only is it on many Kraft Heinz products, including, of course, ketchup; the company called its former Pittsburgh headquarters “the Heinz 57 Center,” and paid the Pittsburgh Steelers $57 million for the naming rights to Heinz Field (a contract that expired last year).

So there was no real, rational reason behind the 57 in “57 Varieties.” Swell. Next they’ll tell me that Keebler cookies aren’t really baked in a hollow tree.