BY Martin LindstromThu Sep 15, 2011
Derren Brown, a British illusionist famous for his mind-reading act, set out to prove just how susceptible we are to the many thousands of signals we're exposed to each day. He approached two creatives from the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi for the "test." On their journey to his office, Brown arranged for carefully placed clues to appear surreptitiously on posters and balloons, in shop windows, and on t-shirts worn by passing pedestrians.
Upon their arrival, the two creatives were given 20 minutes to come up with a campaign for a fictional taxidermy store. Derren Brown also left them a sealed envelope that was only to be opened once they'd presented their campaign. Twenty minutes later, they presented and then opened the envelope. Lo and behold, Derren Brown's plans for the taxidermy store were remarkably similar to the ad campaign, with an astounding 95% overlap.
An interesting experiment, you may say, but hardly a trick you'd fall for. But bear this in mind--it's more than likely you were well primed the last time you went shopping.
Let's take for example Whole Foods, a market chain priding itself on selling the highest quality, freshest, and most environmentally sound produce. No one could argue that their selection of organic food and take-away meals are whole, hearty, and totally delicious. But how much thought have you given to how they're actually presenting their wares? Have you considered the carefully planning that's goes into every detail that meets the eye?
In my new book Brandwashed, I explore the many strategies retailers use to encourage us to spend more than we need to--more than we intend to. Without a shadow of doubt, Whole Foods leads the pack in consumer priming.
Let's pay a visit to Whole Foods' splendid Columbus Circle store in New York City. As you descend the escalator you enter the realm of a freshly cut flowers. These are what advertisers call "symbolics"--unconscious suggestions. In this case, letting us know that what's before us is bursting with freshness.
Flowers, as everyone knows, are among the freshest, most perishable objects on earth. Which is why fresh flowers are placed right up front--to "prime" us to think of freshness the moment we enter the store. Consider the opposite--what if we entered the store and were greeted with stacks of canned tuna and plastic flowers? Having been primed at the outset, we continue to carry that association, albeit subconsciously, with us as we shop.
The prices for the flowers, as for all the fresh fruits and vegetables, are scrawled in chalk on fragments of black slate--a tradition of outdoor European marketplaces. It's as if the farmer pulled up in front of Whole Foods just this morning, unloaded his produce, then hopped back in his flatbed truck to drive back upstate to his country farm. The dashed-off scrawl also suggests the price changes daily, just as it might at a roadside farm stand or local market. But in fact, most of the produce was flown in days ago, its price set at the Whole Foods corporate headquarters in Texas. Not only do the prices stay fixed, but what might look like chalk on the board is actually indelible; the signs have been mass-produced in a factory.
Ever notice that there's ice everywhere in this store? Why? Does hummus really need to be kept so cold? What about cucumber-and-yogurt dip? No and no. This ice is another symbolic. Similarly, for years now supermarkets have been sprinkling select vegetables with regular drops of water--a trend that began in Denmark. Why? Like ice displays, those sprinkled drops serve as a symbolic, albeit a bogus one, of freshness and purity. Ironically, that same dewy mist makes the vegetables rot more quickly than they would otherwise. So much for perception versus reality.
Speaking of fruit, you may think a banana is just a banana, but it's not. Dole and other banana growers have turned the creation of a banana into a science, in part to manipulate perceptions of freshness. In fact, they've issued a banana guide to greengrocers, illustrating the various color stages a banana can attain during its life cycle. Each color represents the sales potential for the banana in question. For example, sales records show that bananas with Pantone color 13-0858 (otherwise known as Vibrant Yellow) are less likely to sell than bananas with Pantone color 12-0752 (also called Buttercup), which is one grade warmer, visually, and seems to imply a riper, fresher fruit. Companies like Dole have analyzed the sales effects of all varieties of color and, as a result, plant their crops under conditions most ideal to creating the right 'color.' And as for apples? Believe it or not, my research found that while it may look fresh, the average apple you see in the supermarket is actually 14 months old.
Then there's those cardboard boxes with anywhere from eight to ten fresh cantaloupes packed inside each one. These boxes could have been unpacked easily by any one of Whole Foods' employees, but they're left that way on purpose. Why? For that rustic, aw-shucks touch. In other words, it's a symbolic to reinforce the idea of old-time simplicity. But wait, something about these boxes looks off. Upon close inspection, this stack of crates looks like one giant cardboard box. It can't be, can it? It is. In fact, it's one humongous cardboard box with fissures cut carefully down the side that faces consumers (most likely by some industrial machinery at a factory in China) to make it appear as though this one giant cardboard box is made up of multiple stacked boxes. It's ingenious in its ability to evoke the image of Grapes of Wrath-era laborers piling box after box of fresh fruit into the store.
So the next time you happen to grab your wallet to go shopping, don't be fooled: retailers for better or for worse, are the masters of seduction and priming--brandwashing us to believe in perception rather than reality.
Martin Lindstrom is a 2009 recipient of TIME Magazine's "World's 100 Most Influential People" and author of Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why We Buy (Doubleday, New York), a New York Times and Wall Street Journal best--seller. His latest book, Brandwashed: Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy, will be released in September. A frequent advisor to heads of numerous Fortune 100 companies, Lindstrom has also authored 5 best-sellers translated into 30 languages. More at martinlindstrom.com.
A class action lawsuit has been filed against ConAgra Foods regarding the company's use of the term "all-natural" in the packaging and advertising for its Wesson line of cooking oils. The suit, which is being handled by Milberg LLP, alleges that ConAgra's inclusion of genetically modified corn and soy in the oils disqualifies their labeling as "all-natural." The plaintiffs cite accepted definitions of genetic modification -- including one by leading GMO booster Monsanto -- that specifically stipulate the unnaturalness of the process.
The vacuity of the term "all-natural" is quickly becoming one of the food world's dirtiest open secrets. It took a thrashing a few weeks ago, when news of the OJ industry's frankenjuice recipe for "100% all-natural orange juice" got serious play. It's becoming clear that a food marked "natural" is at least as likely as any other to be artificially processed. Indeed, the Food Marketing Institute flatly states that, "The term 'natural' is not regulated except for meat and poultry."
But if the suit finds conclusively in favor of the plaintiffs, the term's days as an unregulated catch-all for semi-processed foods could be numbered.
At the National Archives, Life, Liberty and Carp
During World War II, the Agriculture Department used posters to promote better nutrition. More Photos »
MORE than 80 years before “Got Milk?” there was “Eat the Carp!”
The slogan was dreamed up by the United States Department of Fisheries in 1911 as part of an effort to push the uncomely fish into the American kitchen, just one of scores of ways the federal government has tried over the last two centuries to direct how Americans eat through promotional campaigns, nutritional admonitions, factory regulations and gardening tips.
Many of these are engagingly documented in a new exhibition, “What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam?” which opens later this month at the National Archives here.
Through documents, food labels, film footage, photographs and other artifacts from the Revolutionary War to the 1980s, the show offers a fascinating and at times quirky reminder of the vast and perpetual role that the federal government has played in all things edible, with goals both laudable and perverse.
The ongoing debates in Congress concerning food safety, which stemmed in large part from a slew of E. coli outbreaks nationwide, was preceded decades ago by an outrage over deaths due to toxic candy sold by street vendors. That helped spark the regulation of commercial food, documented through photos and documents in the exhibition.
Long before the makers of fatty crackers tried to sell Americans on their nutritional value, the government was pushing enriched white bread as a fantastic source of vitamin B1, through public service ads displayed here. The ever-evolving food pyramid was presaged by a nutrition chart that counted butter as its own food group.
“Government has been involved in our food system since the earliest days of colonial America,” said Andrew F. Smith, a food historian and author of numerous books on the subject. “I think among virtually all the foods you eat, the federal government has certainly had a role in it.”
In some cases, the goal of government has been turned on its head over the years. Federal nutritional advice is now designed to tell people, subtly, to stop being so fat, while in the early decades of the 20th century, the goal was to combat malnutrition.
But often, trends that seem modern and forward thinking (speaking with lust about, say, the fresh shelled pea) turn out to have been pushed by the government years ago.
Front and center of the exhibition is a giant poster, printed to highlight the brilliant green of a bell pepper and the rich red of Uncle Sam’s trousers, which reads: “Uncle Sam Says Garden to Cut Food Costs.” Produced by the Agriculture Department during World War I, the poster would scarcely look out of place in an issue of Saveur.
The idea of a show exploring the government’s place in the national food chain was hatched by the archive’s director of exhibits, Christina Rudy Smith, who stumbled upon a document from 1776 designed to entice men to enlist in the Continental Army through the promise of three solid meals a day. (While few would be seduced into service by today’s M.R.E.’s, patriots were apparently beguiled by a pound of meat and a quart of spruce beer.)
Her inkling that the archives could be harnessed to tell the history of food in the United States was bolstered by the discovery of other items, like a receipt for portable soup left behind from the Lewis and Clark expedition.
“People have been concerned with exactly the same things, from nutrition to food safety, for hundreds of years,” said Alice Kamps, the curator of the show, who dived into the archives, from file cabinets to crumbling notebooks filled with records from the late 1800s, to bring it all together.
The exhibition is organized in four parts: farm, which explores the relationship between government and growers; factory, which looks at the history of food regulation and processing; kitchen, which includes displays of nutritional studies and government education campaigns concerning food; and table, which documents the way government has fed people from schools to military bases. There were so many items in the archives for each segment, “I had trouble narrowing it down,” Ms. Kamps said.
Among her findings:
• In the early 1900s, the Agriculture Department sent explorers throughout the world, Indiana Jones style, to study new plant breeds and bring them back to the United States. Their discoveries were gained at some peril, including but not limited to Siberian tigers and Boxer Rebellion fighters, making a knife and revolver required tools for all researchers. The most famous among them was Frank Nicholas Meyer, who discovered the lemon that would later bear his name, favored large wooly capes and died in 1918 under mysterious circumstances during a trip along the Yangtze River.
• Tea was the first food to be regulated by the federal government (in 1897), Birds Eye got the patent for the first frozen-food processing machine and ketchup was among the first commercial convenience foods to take off. This did not go so well at first. It seems that mom-and-pop producers (who today would be touted as artisanal locavores) were making ketchup from tomato cannery refuse, which would ferment in American pantries and explode. Housewives were warned of perils of errant ketchup with a cartoon featuring “Mrs. Dupagnac,” standing forlornly in her Victorian gown in her walk-in pantry amid bottles of the exploding condiment.
The old ad campaigns and nutritional charts, some of them striking works of art in themselves, are both the strangest and most compelling parts of the show. “Patriots Eat Doughnuts” is a fun poster, but “Eat The Carp!” a flyer that is heavy on the semicolon (“Eat the roe; can the roe”) is among the most amusing.
“Carp were introduced to American waters in the 1880s and proliferated to the point of overcoming native fish and fauna,” Ms. Kamps said. “Americans did not take to them as hoped, so the campaign was an attempt to promote them as a food fish.”
The show also peers into the White House kitchen, with menus from state dinners, President Lyndon Johnson’s barbecue apron and a smattering of recipes, like ones for Queen Elizabeth’s scones and Lady Bird Johnson’s chili, published at nytimes.com/dining with the caveat that it owes its place in history more to its author than to its own intrinsic charms.
In one nod to modernity, José Andrés will transform his Café Atlantico restaurant, near the archives, into a temporary restaurant, American Eats Tavern, as an extension of the exhibition.
The menu will be inspired by the show, with items like clam chowder, burgoo and oysters Rockefeller. The décor will feature vintage photos of markets and farm, renderings of the American flag and the like.
The first floor will have a cafe menu with a big focus on cocktails, and the second and third floors will be serving more-refined dishes. “I am tasting 25 different drinks right now,” Mr. Andrés said last week in a telephone interview. Expect some milk punch, based on Benjamin Franklin’s recipe, as well as a Champagne cocktail first featured at the Waldorf-Astoria hotel. “I am very much using every piece of information to create the dishes,” he said.
Frank Meyer would undoubtedly love it.
“What’s Cooking, Uncle Sam? The Government’s Effect on the American Diet.” National Archives, Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, Constitution Avenue NW between Seventh and Ninth Streets, Washington. June 10 to Jan. 3; America Eats Tavern will be at 405 Eighth Street NW, Washington.
A recent New York Times Book Review essay on author brand-building cited Ernest Hemingway's and John Steinbeck's stints as a spokespersons for Ballantine Ale. (Not mentioned was The Poseidon Adventure author Paul Gallico, who appeared in the same series of print ads for the beer.) Of course, they weren’t the first or last authors to shill. Mark Twain’s name and likeness were used (not always with his permission) to sell everything from shirt collars to passenger trains. Émile Zola, H.G. Wells, Alexandre Dumas, Henrik Ibsen and Jules Verne all provided testimonials for the cocaine-infused French elixir Vin Mariani. More than a century later, Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac plugged Gap khakis—in Kerouac’s case, posthumously. A couple years after his death, Hunter S. Thompson was co-opted by Converse.
So why then are contemporary authors so utterly neglected by Madison Avenue? Sure, there's John Hodgman and Apple. But where's the Ray-Ban campaign featuring Jonathan Franzen, Jonathan Safran Foer, Zadie Smith, Junot Diaz and Gary Shteyngart? The Best Buy commercial in which Jennifer Egan receives a visit from the Geek Squad? The Planters endorsement deal for Mr. Peanut author Adam Ross? Most puzzling is authors’ absence from e-Reader commercials. Of the big four device-makers—Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, and Sony—only the last has used an author in a TV spot. (While various authors, including Toni Morrison, Michael Lewis and James Patterson, have done mini-infomercials for Kindle, these appear only on Amazon.com.)
In case today's Sterling Coopers need still further evidence of authors' promotional skills, here are some other memorable examples.
1. Mickey Spillane for Miller Lite. During the 1970s and '80s, the legendary crime novelist appeared in more than a hundred promos for the “great taste, less filling” beer:
2. Kurt Vonnegut for Discover:
3. George Plimpton for Intellivision. The most ubiquitous modern author-spokesperson, The Paris Review patriarch lent his name to Saab, Pop Secret popcorn, Carlsburg beer, Dry Dock Savings Bank and even a Hamptons pool company. But his most indelible pitches were for this eighties' home video game system:
4. Stephen King for American Express:
5. Stephen King for ESPN:
6. William S. Burroughs for Nike:
7. F. Scott Fitzgerald for Calvin Klein. One of a series of David Lynch-directed commercials for the Obsession fragrance that also featured passages by Ernest Hemingway and D.H. Lawrence. And yes, that’s a young Benicio Del Toro and Heather Graham:
8. Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal for Tyde. In this SCTV spoof, Eugene Levy and Martin Short send up one of literature’s most famous feuds:
Sean Manning is the author of the memoir The Things That Need Doing and editor of several nonfiction anthologies, most recently Bound to Last: 30 Writers on Their Most Cherished Book.
It’s Memorial Day weekend, a time to rise from the cubicle, hop in the car, put the top down and take to the open road.
Sadly, the office-bound hero of this week’s classic ad can only dream about such things. The ad, a 2002 spot for the Volkswagen New Beetle convertible, follows a young corporate drone through several iterations of his tedious daily routine, as Electric Light Orchestra’s “Mr. Blue Sky” offers an ironic commentary. Salvation for this proto-Jim Halpert is suggested by the appearance of the New Beetle Convertible, though the viewer at home sees only the briefest glimpse of the car’s retracting top.
A commercial that doesn’t show the product being advertised can be a risky proposition, as Infiniti’s highly conceptual and widely ridiculed “rocks and trees” campaign proved back in 1989. But Volkswagen gambled on the iconic status of the Beetle, and came away with one of the most memorable commercials of the last decade.
WHEN “Sex and the City” ended its run in 2004 as one of HBO’s most successful series, seemingly every network tried to recapture the show’s lighthearted, feminine formula.
Who knew it could simply be bottled?
For several years, winemakers have in effect tried just that, releasing a bevy of cheap, cheery wines appealing to conventional notions of contemporary women, à la Carrie Bradshaw (though her beverage of choice was usually the cosmopolitan).
One of those winemakers, Cupcake Vineyards of Soledad, Calif., seems to be achieving notable success by marrying its label with the same cupcake craze “Sex and the City” helped foment. Is there another winemaker on earth that offers Red Velvet (a blend of zinfandel, merlot and cabernet)? Or describes its sauvignon blanc as having “a vibrant zing, reminiscent of a lemon chiffon cupcake”? Now, Cupcake has added flavored vodkas, with names like Chiffon, Devil’s Food and Frosting.
The concept appears to be enjoying something of a pop culture moment. Recently, a bottle of Cupcake wine appeared in the clutches of Kristen Wiig’s character in “Bridesmaids,” in which she plays (what else?) a failed cupcake maker. Kristin Chenoweth (portraying the character April) drank it with Will on a recent episode of “Glee;” it also made an appearance on the reality show "Mob Wives." (The "Glee" appearance was a deliberate product placement, according to a spokeswoman.)
In real life, Sam Rehman, manager of Philippe Wine and Liquor in Chelsea, said that the brand, which sells for about $12 to $15 a bottle in stores, is “on fire.”
The appeal of Cupcake wine is probably best understood within the context of broader trends. Over the past decade, Americans increased their annual wine consumption by more than 200 million gallons, according to the Wine Institute, an industry association. More telling, 59 percent of wine is bought by women, according to 2009 figures from the Beverage Information Group, which analyzes the industry.
As such, several new wines have emerged lately targeting young women, with insouciant names like Middle Sister Wines and Girls’ Night Out.
The niche-within-niche competition can be fierce. Last month, two wines branded as the multitasked mother’s little helper, Mommy’s Time Out and MommyJuice, went to court in a trademark battle.
Not everyone buys the hype. Lorena Ascencios, the wine buyer for Astor Wines and Spirits in Greenwich Village, said she had not tried Cupcake in a few years, but thought it was “poorly made” for the price at the time and declined to it for the store.
On the other hand, Mr. Rehman of Philippe Wine and Liquor said this week that though part of the appeal may be the “eye-catching label, the quality of the wines is good as well.”
Adam Richardson, Cupcake’s head winemaker, insisted that Cupcake was not intentionally marketed to women, though he admitted the image probably resonated with them a little more. Regardless, the wines have to work for both sexes once they reach the dinner table, he said.
Besides, he said, “I actually think the modern guy is probably as amenable to cupcakes as women are.”
A computer-designed photo shows what a Hollywood-type sign would look like in Wellington, New Zealand. (EPA / Wellington Airport)
May 25, 2011, 8:05 a.m.
Wellington International Airport in New Zealand's capital city is pushing ahead with a controversial plan to construct a giant "Wellywood" sign on an unused hillside that it hopes will become an iconic symbol of its prowess in the global film world.
Hollywood is not amused. The Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, which holds the trademark for the historic sign featuring 45-foot-tall letters, said in a statement Monday that it had warned the airport more than a year ago to seek permission from the chamber if it planned to construct such a sign. Chamber officials said they thought the idea had died when they didn't hear back from the airport.
With fresh reports of the sign's upcoming construction, the chamber is seeking legal advice. Its statement reads in part: "We are not without a sense of humor, nor without legal rights. We hope that if the Wellington airport wants to mimic our Sign in this fashion, it will proceed in cooperation with us and will recognize that the holder of the rights to the Sign and the party responsible for its continued existence is a nonprofit entity that works hard to raise funds so that the Sign even exists to be mimicked."
The chamber was reacting to the airport's upbeat news release Saturday about its decision to expedite construction of the Wellywood sign on a hillside on the Miramar Peninsula. The airport hopes to bring another "high-profile attraction" to Wellington that celebrates its film contributions.
The sign, about 26 feet by 98 feet, "will be the city’s newest photo opportunity and is expected to appear on more than a few holiday snaps in the coming years."
The airport cited the following evidence that the name Wellywood had global gravitas: The nickname has been used in the media, particularly in the New York Times, and a Google search of the name generates 224,000 results.
Airport Chief Executive Steven Fitzgerald said in the release that he expected "widespread support for the intent of the sign, even if a Wellywood sign isn't everyone's cup of tea."
Indeed, at least one protest was held over the sign, and criticism has appeared on the airport's Facebook page. "I don't think that copying another [country's] cultural sign is really doing much for our own culture. We have become so americanised lately, and its sad.... what happened to Kiwiana?" read a comment attributed to Alexandra Tui Hegh.
J.Crew quietly included a photo in its May catalogue of one of its stylish employees with his stylish boyfriend. Under the headline "Happy Together. Our designer Somsack and his boyfriend, Micah," the couple stand at arm's length, grinning at the camera in their perfectly slouched, crispy J.Crew outfits. J.Crew declined to comment on the image, which has been heralded by LGBT advocacy groups, effectively demonstrating that it's not a publicity stunt but a smart and effortless way to sell clothing in the year 2011. ABC News has a thorough report on this image, which is sadly quite an unusual thing in American advertising.
More American companies recognize the consumer buying power of the lesbian, gay, bisexual community. According to a report in the online magazine Treasury and Risk, their spending will exceed $769 billion this year.
Now, J.Crew seems to have jumped on the bandwagon, according to advertising experts.
Oh, so American companies are figuring out that gay people — like plenty of straight people! — like to shop. Who would have thought?