Don't worry, buy happy: Cheerful stuff is selling well

The economy's in the tank. Consumers have no spare cash. And the financial outlook is bleak. So, guess what the savviest consumer product makers are rolling out these days: happy stuff.

That's right, products that make folks smile.

Nowhere is the smile factor wider than at Frito-Lay's Cheetos division, which this week will nationally introduce a product the chipmaker bets will help a nation of recession-obsessed consumers lighten up and open their wallets: Cheetos the size of ping-pong balls.

"People are looking for anything to break the negativity," says Ann Mukherjee, marketing guru at Frito-Lay, which, at one point even considered — but junked the idea of — Cheetos the size of tennis balls.

These aren't products that target kids. For the most part, they're aimed at grown-ups — and many are coming from seasoned marketers including Kraft, Procter & Gamble and Denny's.

"When we're stressed, we revert back to the things that comforted us as kids," says Howard Papush, aka, Dr. Play, who consults companies on engaging employees with play. "We want to play our way through stress."

Marketers get it. "People are looking for escape valves to take their minds off the economy," says Lynn Dornblaser, new products guru at researcher Mintel.

Among the "happy" stuff:

Giant Cheetos

Frito-Lay hired cultural anthropologists who watched stressed workers fiddle with stuff on their desks — including stress balls. So why not Giant Cheetos, instead? "It's a ball you can eat," Mukherjee says.

Part of the "fun," she says, is deciding whether to eat the Giant Cheeto in a few bites or pop the whole thing in your mouth.

The round snacks will be sold in $2.89 bags and sleeves of five for 59 cents.

Pancake Puppies

Denny's recently introduced the $1.99 doughnut hole-sized pancake appetizers served in sundae cups. "The more bummed out people are by the economy, the more they want to lighten their load," says Marc Chmiel, chief marketing officer.

Oreo Fun Stix

Kraft next month will roll out straw-shaped Oreos that can be used to drink milk. "We're looking for ways to help families enjoy life's simple pleasures," says Kraft Foods spokeswoman Laurie Guzzinati.

Bubble Calendar

The 4-foot-tall wall calendar has Bubble Wrap-like bubbles to pop for each day of the year. The calendar, sold at, costs $20.09. "Having a fun gift is a real need right now," creator Stephen Turbek says.

Other happy stuff

•Outlast Lipstain. P&G just rolled out Cover Girl Outlast Lipstain — which isn't shaped like a lipstick, but like a marker pen. Essentially, women draw their lips.

"Life is tough enough right now — makeup shouldn't be," says Vince Hudson, marketing director at Cover Girl.

•Mouse trap cheese board. The Oh, Snap! cheese board and cutter, available next month at $17.50, is designed to look like a mouse trap. The key is mixing humor with function, says Joe Edmundson, marketing director at Fred & Friends, the offbeat gift maker that designed it.

At a time when retail sales are mostly tanking, its sales were up by double digits last year, he says.

Secret Message Cuff Links

How cool is this? Cuff links with empty, stainless steel cylinders just big enough to hold tiny scrolls with secret messages — original or pre-written.

They're not cheap at $49.95, but is selling plenty. Explains merchandising president Greg Smith, "They're designed to put a smile on people's faces."

TELL US: What stress-reducing product has caught your eye or brought you joy recently?