Amid a massive company pivot, a monthlong press cycle and increasing calls for regulation, Mark Zuckerberg wants everyone to know he has a sense of humor.
In an 80-minute keynote presentation announcing his company’s name change — from Facebook to Meta — and a shift away from traditional social networking, the 37-year-old chief executive made sure to insert a longstanding gag that his employees and followers would appreciate: a bottle of barbecue sauce.
Eagle-eyed watchers knew that this wasn’t just any condiment standing on the bookshelf behind Mr. Zuckerberg. It was Sweet Baby Ray’s, the tangy grocery store staple that’s been elevated to meme status ever since the Facebook founder mentioned it in a now infamous 2016 video at least 11 times while “smoking meats” in his backyard. He was poking fun at himself.
While Mr. Zuckerberg has struggled to make himself seem empathetic and relatable, he and his army of press handlers seem to have figured out that a little self-deprecation goes a long way in making a man worth $116 billion look a bit more normal. They’ve made a yearslong effort to rehabilitate his image — one that’s been defined by onstage meltdowns, weird declarations and constant company crises. Just like his company, Mr. Zuckerberg seems keen to leave the past behind.
And so, for a few hours on Thursday, at least, people were talking about Mr. Zuckerberg — not as an all-powerful C.E.O. whose company has provided a platform to undermine elections, spread misinformation and incite violence, but as a pretty cool guy.
A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment for this article.
Sweet Baby Ray’s has become enmeshed in company lore ever since Mr. Zuckerberg made his love for the sauce known on a 2016 livestream video that has been memed into oblivion. In weekly companywide Q. and A. sessions with employees, references to the barbecue sauce sometimes come up along with other inside jokes, including the chief executive’s love for McDonald’s spicy chicken nuggets and his obsession with owning goats.
In April, amid a larger effort to shift his posting away from addressing accusations about the company’s role in spreading misinformation and hate speech, Mr. Zuckerberg posted a photo of a grocery store sale of his favorite barbecue sauce, calling it “my kind of deal.”
The Sweet Baby Ray’s cameo in Thursday’s presentation was worth more than $2 million in media mentions within 24 hours, according to Apex Marketing Group, a brand consulting firm based outside of Detroit. (A Sweet Baby Ray’s spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.)
That wasn’t the only Easter egg that Face— er, Meta stuck in the presentation.
At one point in the stream, Mr. Zuckerberg appeared at a desk with a bottle of sunscreen sitting atop it and a surfboard leaning against the wall behind him.
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The objects were a callback to a photo that circulated last year of Mr. Zuckerberg on the high seas in Hawaii, his face covered in a heavy helping of zinc sunscreen while riding a motorized hydrofoil.
That photograph, Mr. Zuckerberg later said in an Instagram Live video, was an attempt to hide from paparazzi. It had the opposite effect.
Following a demonstration of Meta’s planned expansion into video games, Mr. Zuckerberg made a verbal nod to his lathered up face: A a gaming opponent, in the video, asks if he wants to play again. “Maybe later,” Mr. Zuckerberg replies. “I’m going to need a lot more sunscreen, though.”
As outlets continue to publish stories based on thousands of leaked documents from a company whistle-blower, a company name change and a few jokes are unlikely to erase Meta’s past. But they may help undermine the public perception that Mr. Zuckerberg can’t take a little ribbing.
In one part of yesterday’s presentation, his avatar tried to sit down to a virtual card game with a group of friends. One of them had chosen their digital presence to be a robot.
“I thought I was supposed to be the robot,” Mr. Zuckerberg quipped.