May 10, 2012
Before any major holiday, I see a slew of ads in my email inbox that tout certain foods as being must-have additions to the celebratory table. It’s usually fairly run of the mill fare: special menus at local restaurants, deals on appliances and kitchen tools. The headline “For the Zero Calorie Mom: Sparking Ice Beverages” struck me as a bit odd. I’d be wary of subliminally suggesting that Mom needs to cut the calories on any day of the year, but do you absolutely have to say it on Mother’s Day? I dug some more into how food companies are positioning their products for this time of year, and some of my findings were, well, unconventional.
The prefab foods camp was by far the most entertaining. Their angle: give Mom the gift of not working in the kitchen. In and of itself, this is a brilliant idea. Freschetta created a standalone website to market their gourmet frozen pizzas as ideal fare, going so far as to create a video of moms waxing rhapsodic about the joys of being a parent before going on about how all they really want is a frozen pizza. There is nothing wrong with frozen pizza, but if I were a mom, I would have a much more developed sense of culinary entitlement and would demand a little more. I later went to Schwan’s website—Freschetta’s parent company—and typed in “Mother’s Day” to see what would pop up. The results included things like microwave brownies and sausage patties. The product description pages in no way promoted these things as Mother’s Day foods, so why they appeared before me is a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a pizza-flavored snack roll, which was also among the search results.
Hormel—the company that brings us SPAM and Vienna sausages—points to open-faced foods as perfect fare, such as toast with cream cheese and fruit. They also suggest sprinkling cheese on a tortilla and spelling out “MOM” in pre-sliced pepperoni. Is edible Mother’s Day branding necessary for people to know that the meal set before them is a sign of love and appreciation? Would a scattershot arrangement of pepperoni—as one might see on, say, a frozen pizza—seem disingenuous? Or maybe I’m too jaded to get excited by luncheon meat typography.
Pop Tarts takes the cake by offering the opportunity to personalize your toaster pastry packaging with your own images and text. It’s too magnificently kitsch for me to rib. Unfortunately, you had to place orders by May 7 to get your personalized Pop Tarts by the 13th, but it seems that this promotion is available year-round and is certainly suitable for a number of occasions.
And what of liquor? This can be a sensitive subject, since presenting Mother’s Day as a reason to drink does perhaps smack of poor taste. Surely this most sacred of relationships could never induce alcoholism in parent and/or child. In Connecticut, the holiday is held dear to the point that liquor restrictions explicitly state that Mother’s Day cannot be referenced in any way, shape or form in advertising. (Father’s Day is apparently fair game, which makes one wonder about about our culture’s opinion of the paterfamilias.) Pennsylvania law, on the other hand, has no such restrictions, and in 2010 the state’s liquor control board mounted an ad campaign promoting wine and vodka as celebration enhancers, going so far as to suggest mixing a Mother’s Kiss—equal parts strawberry kiwi vodka and lemonade. “So many flavors for only $9.99 each,” the radio ads ran. “That is a $4.00 savings. With deals like this you can afford to treat all the mothers in your life this year.” There was some backlash, with the Independent State Store Union calling for the replacement of the liquor board’s director of marketing and merchandising.
Will you be going traditional brunch route this Sunday when you fete the women who hold your family together or will you be venturing into quirkier culinary territory? Tell us about your meal plans in the comments section below—and don’t forget to call your mother.
April 19, 2012
When it came to fighting the Civil War, the South may have been rich in military leadership, but the North had superior resources, especially when it came to industrial strength. Still a largely agrarian society, the Southern states had to import most of their manufactured products, and with a poor railway system, keeping troops well-stocked was a battle in and of itself, especially when enemy blockades interrupted supply lines. Combined with inflation and scorched-earth military campaigns—such as General Sherman’s march through South Carolina—food shortages were a problem for both military and civilians. But even in those hard times, people could find relief in peanuts.
Before the Civil War, peanuts were not a widely cultivated crop in the United States—Virginia and North Carolina were the principal producers—and were generally viewed as a foodstuff fit for the lowest social classes and for livestock. When they were consumed, they were usually eaten raw, boiled or roasted, although a few cookbooks suggested ways to make dessert items with them. The goober pea’s status in the Southern diet changed during the war as other foods became scarce. An excellent source of protein, peanuts were seen as a means of fighting malnutrition. (And they still are, with products such as Plumpy’nut being used in famine-plagued parts of the world.) In addition to their prewar modes of consumption, people used peanuts as a substitute for items that were no longer readily available, such as grinding them to a paste and blending them with milk and sugar when coffee was scarce. “This appreciation [for peanuts] was real,” Andrew F. Smith wrote in Peanuts: The Illustrious History of the Goober Pea. “Southerners continued to drink peanut beverages decades after the war ended.” Peanut oil was used to lubricate locomotives when whale oil could not be obtained—and had the advantage of not gumming up the machinery—while housewives saw it as a sound stand-in for lard and shortening as well as lamp fuel.
Peanuts became ingrained in the culture, going so far as to crop up in music. For Virginian soldiers wanting to take a dig at North Carolina’s peanut crop, there was:
The goobers they are small
The goobers they are small
The goobers they are small,
And they digs them in the fall,
And they eats them, shells and all,
The humorous song “Eatin’ Goober Peas” also surfaced during the war wears. (You can hear the song in full as performed by Burl Ives and Johnny Cash.)
Just before the battle the General hears a row,
He says, “The Yanks are coming, I hear the rifles now,”
He turns around in wonder, and what do you think he sees?
The Georgia militia eating goober peas!
There is also an account of a July 1863 episode where the Confederate Army’s Fifth Company of the Washington Artillery of New Orleans was entrenched in Jackson, Mississippi, and burned down a mansion in order to clear their view of the battlefield—although not before saving a piano. As the Union Army drew nearer, one soldier took to the ivories, encouraging his compatriots to join in song, including a round of “You Shan’t Have Any of My Peanuts”:
The man who has plenty of good peanuts,
And giveth his neighbor none,
He shan’t have any of my peanuts when his peanuts are gone.
While the Fifth Company succeeded in keeping the enemy at bay that day, peanuts just weren’t enough to save the Confederacy in the long haul.
April 10, 2012
What ever happened to really great advertising characters? This question popped into my head the minute I saw the Sriracha Flamethrowing Grizzly. The character, designed by The Oatmeal’s author/artist Matthew Inman, is a sheer flight of fancy and is not—at least not yet—the official figurehead for the hot sauce. With the manic look in his eye, the waggling tongue and his strange ability to deftly wield an incendiary device, I would readily send in proofs of purchase for the plush equivalent of this creature. As twisted as the image might be, you have to admit the guy’s got a terrific amount of personality.
Advertisers employ characters to set their goods apart from everyone else’s, giving consumers someone—or something—to readily identify with. Characters can assign gender, class and ethos to otherwise inanimate objects in addition to reflecting the culture at large. (General Mills released their Monster-themed cereals like Count Chocula in response to hit TV shows like “The Addams Family” and “The Munsters,” and while those programs were cancelled decades ago, the foods they inspired remain on store shelves.) The use of characters began to decline in the 1970s as photography became increasingly preferred over illustration to sell goods. Also, the target audience got smarter and required more sophisticated ploys. The naive cartoon characters from the primitive days of television would be hard pressed to sell the same products to a generation of people who have spent their entire lives exposed to televised advertising. Nevertheless, some characters are ingrained in our culture, including the following:
Aunt Jemima: Ethnic stereotyping is an embarrassing and regrettable theme in advertising history. If you can lay your hands on the book The Label Made Me Buy It, there is an entire section devoted to insensitive depictions of ethnic groups, including the Irish, American Indians, Pacific Islanders and African Americans. The Aunt Jemima brand of pancake mix was introduced in 1889, inspired by a minstrel performance that featured the song “Old Aunt Jemima.” For decades, the character represented a romanticized view of slavery, and what part of makes her fascinating—and infuriating—is how she came to have such a pervasive presence. In addition to print ads and the use of her image on boxes of pancake mix, local promotions hired local actresses to portray the character, and even Disneyland had an Aunt Jemima-themed restaurant that perpetuated the image of the happy southern mammy at least until 1970. The NAACP began protesting this mascot in the early 1960s, although it wasn’t until 1986 that she finally shed the headscarf and received a complete makeover. Despite a modernized image—she now sports pearl earrings—some consumers don’t believe the character can shed her intensely racist origins and say that it’s time for Aunt Jemima to retire.
Charlie the Tuna: In the course of conversation, have you ever said—or heard someone say—”Sorry, Charlie”? Even if there isn’t a Charles, Charlie, or Chuck in the room? This particular turn of phrase has its roots in StarKist canned tuna. The company’s signature spokesfish first appeared in animated ads in 1961 and the slogan we associate with him came about the following year. Originally voiced by stage and screen actor Herschel Bernardi, Charlie strives to be a cultured fish with consummate taste—but apparently he himself does not taste good enough to be used in StarKist products. Every time he pursues a StarKist fishing hook, he finds it speared with a simple rejection letter: “Sorry, Charlie.” Seems the tuna company won’t settle for fish with good taste in lieu of fish that taste good.
Mr. Peanut: Anyone who has seen Sunset Boulevard ought to remember has-been silent screen actress Norma Desmond snarling, “We didn’t need dialog. We had faces!” Mr. Peanut seems to share those sentiments—although he ended up having the better career. The mascot of Planters peanuts since 1916, he didn’t get a voice until a 2010 ad campaign set about revitalizing the character for a younger generation. (Iron Man actor Robert Downey, Jr. supplied the voice, and you can even get updates from Mr. Peanut on Facebook.) Although other monocled and behatted goobers predate the Planters character, it is Mr. Peanut who has enjoyed serious staying power, appearing on Planters products—not to mention a horde of spinoff merchandise—and becoming one of the most recognizable advertising characters in existence.
The Jolly Green Giant: The Jolly Green Giant always seems like such a personable guy, but would you ever expect him to be nice enough to get someone out of a legal bind? When the Minnesota Valley Canning Company wanted to start canning a variety of especially large peas under the name “green giant,” it tried to trademark the title but couldn’t because it was merely descriptive of the product. But they could conjure up an image—a character even—with which to stake a legally binding claim on the name of their goods. The Green Giant was born in 1928—although in his initial incarnation, he was Neanderthal-looking and strangely non-green in appearance. With a little redesigning by Leo Burnett, he became a jolly, verdant fellow by the mid-1930s and by the 1950s he became so popular that the Minnesota Valley Canning Company re-dubbed itself Green Giant.
Spongmonkeys, the Quizno’s Rodents: I would not lump the Spongmonkeys in the same class as the other characters mentioned above, but if nothing else they show how advertising reflects trends in current popular culture. The creatures are animals—maybe tarsiers, perhaps marmosets—that have been photoshopped to have human mouths and bulging eyes. They also have a fondness for hats. The brainchild of Joel Veitch, who created a video with the spongmonkeys hovering in front of a hydrangea bush singing about how much they love the moon. It’s over-the-top bizarre. And perhaps that was the quality Quizno’s was looking for when the sandwich chain used this work of internet video art as the basis for a national ad campaign. Some people loved the spongmonkeys, others weren’t quite sure what to do with them—but at the very least, people were talking about Quizno’s. And isn’t that the mark of a successful piece of advertising?
March 21, 2012
A bone china service is a trophy for the sideboard, symbolizing the best of the best for formal entertaining in all its pinky-raising glory. The fine porcelain, with ground animal bones in the material, is prized for its strength as well as its delicacy. But there was a point in our species’ history when niceties were more or less dispensed with and human bones were deemed fit for use as serving ware. The practice is well documented in ethnographic studies and historical accounts; the Scythians, Vikings and ancient Chinese were among the cultures that practiced using skulls for bowls or drinking vessels. Archaeological evidence, on the other hand, is rare. In a new study, archaeologists and paleontologists examined remains dating some 16,600 years ago—during the upper Paleolithic era—and think they may have found the earliest examples of human skull cups.
The remains evaluated in the study hail from Gough’s Cave in Somerset, England and represent at least five humans, including three adults and a child. The clustered cutting marks indicate that these craniums were expertly processed post-mortem. Shortly after death and once rigor mortis had set in, the heads were detached from the body. The head was then scalped, likely with flint tools; facial tissues and bones were removed and jagged edges were chipped and flaked until smooth. But the tipoff that these remains were used for containers is the completeness of the cranial vaults—the rounded part of your skull that protects your brain. Compared to the other, drastic modifications made to the skull, great care was taken to make sure that the vault remained intact. The case for presenting these pieces as skull cups is further bolstered by their similarities to confirmed examples.
Of course, one must remember Emily Post’s dictate regarding fine dining: “What must match is the quality of everything on the table. It would be incorrect, for example, to use heavy pottery salad plates with fine china dinner plates.” In short, a modified human cranium placed alongside your inherited set of Franciscan Desert Rose would smack of poor taste.
March 13, 2012
Have you ever considered video games to be works of art? A show called The Art of Video Games, opening Friday at the American Art Museum, moves beyond looking at games simply as a form of entertainment and draws our attention to how games are a design and storytelling medium—perhaps the art medium of the 21st century.
By the same token, have you ever stopped to think about how food figures into video games? Pac Man chows down on power pellets, Mario is a hardcore mushroom-monger, Donkey Kong a banana connoisseur. There have been games devoted to food fights or hamburger chefs being chased by manic pickles and sausages. Furthermore, ever since the video game boom of the late 1970s, games have been used as a means to advertise products—including edibles. While “advergaming” may be a recent piece of Internet age jargon to describe web-based games created to market a branded product, the concept has been kicking around since the dawn of video games. Here are a five notable games that were created to promote familiar foodstuffs.
Tapper (1983): Let’s start with arcade-era gaming. The premise of this one was simple: You are a bartender whose goal is to keep sliding beers down the bar to quench your customers’ thirst. This cabinet is noteworthy for its clever physical design: Bar-style beer taps are used to control your character and places to rest your drink. Players will also notice that the Budweiser logo is shown front-and-center and on the bar’s back wall. Although the game was initially meant to be installed in bars, it was re-tooled and re-christened Root Beer Tapper as a kid-appropriate game for arcades and home video gaming platforms.
Kool-Aid Man (1983): What’s notable about this game is how the marketers and the computer programmers behind the game clashed. Marketing wanted a single game that could be adapted to the variety of gaming systems then on the market, whereas programmers wanted to create multiple versions of the game, each one able to take advantage of each platform’s technical strengths. For those who bought the Atari 2600 version of the game, you played the Kool-Aid Man who had to thwart little round creatures called Thirsties who drank from a pool of water—if the water was depleted, the game ended. The Intellivision version was drastically different, with players controlling two children trapped in a haunted house being terrorized by Thirsties. If you collected the ingredients needed to make Kool-Aid, the Kool-Aid man characteristically busted through a wall to thwart the Thirsties.
The California Raisins (1988): The late 1980s and early 1990s were a great era for clay-animated television ads hawking food, and the chief ad mascots were the California Raisins. This Motown-esque group of singing raisins was featured in several television ads, a Christmas special and a Saturday morning cartoon show. The raisins released several albums and even inspired two video games. The first was a PC game in which you played a raisin whose friends were trapped in a cereal factory and it’s your job to rescue them.The second is the stuff of gaming apocrypha. Developed for the Nintendo Entertainment System and slated for release in 1991, it was cancelled at the last minute, perhaps in part due to the raisins’ waning popularity. I still think that’s doing pretty well for something as simple as dried fruit. (On a side note, the raisins’ claymation counterpart, the Dominos Noid, also graced PC screens.)
Chex Quest (1997): For a kid, finding a prize at the bottom of the cereal box is the ultimate payoff for eating breakfast every day. (Aside from all the associated health benefits.) While small toys are par for the course, the cereal box can also be a source for home gaming entertainment. The first video game packaged in a box of cereal also happened to have a food theme. Chex Quest was based on the then-popular Doom series of games, which was notorious for its extreme violence. Chex Quest, on the other hand, was totally kid friendly. You played as an anthropomorphized piece of Chex tasked with saving the planet from an invasion of slimy, green creatures—but instead of killing them, you zapped them with your gun and teleported them to another dimension.
Darkened Skye (2002): Released on the Nintendo Game Cube platform in 2002, you play Skye, a shepherdess charged with fighting the forces of darkness with your wits, weapons and… magic Skittles. Yes, you read that right. Turns out there are Skittle-laden rainbows that bring color and life to Skye’s world, and she unleashes the magic of said Skittles in her mission. What an epic extension of the “taste the rainbow” ad campaign!
All that said, perhaps the most perfect marriage of video games and the culinary world is the Super Nintoaster—the product of a gaming fan who gutted a toaster and replaced the heating elements with all the requisite circuitry and jacks to make a perfectly functional gaming system. Pac Man shrimp dumplings, served at Red Farm restaurant in New York City, come in at a very close second.
The Art of Video Games will be at at the American Art Museum through September 30.