Whatever | Food
Why does food packaging turn us all into kids?
As a practising asthmatic I sensibly avoid dairy products, which are, as I am always happy to report at dinner parties, mucus-forming. As a substitute that’s altogether kinder in matters bronchial, I buy oat milk – to which the correct knockabout response is: how do you milk an oat? You’d better ask the company that makes Oatly in Landskrona, Sweden. While you’re about it, ask them why they have redesigned their once-authoritative, functional cartons so that they now look as if an errant child has scribbled all over them in felt tip?
Opening my fridge, I am greeted with foreshadowed lettering reminiscent of a fourth-form pencil case declaiming, “An ode to oats”, under which folksy eulogy is a rudimentary drawing of some kernels (“Oats look good too!” it says). Next to the illustrated serving suggestion on the side of the box – Oatly over some cereals – a further squiggled message says, “Feel free to use a bigger bowl.” Because the photo of the bowl is very small! Stop it, you’re killing me.
The irony is, Oatly isn’t killing me. It’s free from added sugar, low in saturated fat and contains oat fibre. And it certainly doesn’t block my pipes with pesky mucus. A thoughtful and health-giving elixir with a grown-up function as a lactose alternative, it is nonetheless marketed at me as if I have the mental age of seven.
There is something insidious and deeply patronising at work here. Take Innocent smoothies – and you do, with over a million of those little plastic bottles sold every week. A joyous little product (fruit drink made from real fruit, not concentrate, I’m glugging from one now) but packaged to make you feel as if you are sitting in a high chair and being spoon-fed with talk of a train going into the tunnel. Those wacky ingredients lists (“half a pressed mango, half a mashed banana, one double-decker bus”), quirky claims (“NO stabilisers, NO added sugar, NO funny business – and if we do you can tell our mums”) and ticklesome instructions (“please shake me before pouring – it helps if the cap’s on”). PLENTY of added irony.
You might argue that this matey, idiosyncratic spin helps remind us that Innocent started out as a trestle table at a rock festival and wishes nobly to retain this co-operative, back-of-a-van ethic. Innocent, named Employer of the Year by the Guardian in 2005, makes great play of ethical fruit-sourcing and giving 10 per cent of their profits to charity, so no need to “tell their mums” on that score, but let’s not kid ourselves that they make their smoothies in a kitchen blender any more. In 2005, the company posted a turnover of £38m; last year, £75m. In December, Innocent appointed the former head of brands at Nestlé as its marketing director. The twee TV ads and funny cartons (“once opened consume within 4 days or we’ll come round and get you”) are there to distract us: a knitted tea cosy over capitalism’s iron fist.
Blame Ben and Jerry. Overturning decades of clearly-defined food and drink packaging that was either squarely aimed at kids (Coco Pops, Cresta, Turkey Drummers), or mums and dads (Black Magic, Cointreau, Vienetta), the hairy dairymen farsightedly bridged the “kidult” divide with their cartoony ice cream. Small Businessmen of the Year by 1988, the Vermont-based Deadheads sold out to corporate giant Unilever in 2000 for a chunky-monkey $326m. Peddling the long-defunct myth of two old hippies throwing handfuls of pecans about in a shed thick with aromatic smoke, the combined corporate stamp of Play School design and puerile, punning flavours – at least two to date named after the Dave Matthews Band – continues to work its magic on consumers old enough to know better. Unless, of course, as we get closer to our own mortality, self-deception on such matters helps to get us through the day.
The infantilising influence of Ben & Jerry’s is everywhere, from those irritating Japanese creatures making us buy 3G mobile phones, to E4, with all that self-conscious talk of “your telly-box.” The franchised coffee-shop chain Puccino’s scribbles on everything from its paper cups to the walls of its outlets. I smiled the first time they served me a cappuccino with what is labelled on the wrapper a “stupid little biscuit”, but like the wacky outgoing ansaphone message, the funny car sticker and the Gromit tie, its comedic levity can wear pretty thin.
The worst culprits remain those brands seeking to put on an ethical front, whose message is, look, we’re just mucking about here, it’s not about the money or anything. Firefly health tonics, becoming ubiquitous, are also packaged with added-on scribbles (“Wakey wakey!”). Richard Reed, co-founder of Innocent, writes a self-effacing business column for the Guardian: “If you went up to any member of our commercial team right now and asked them about budget forecasting, they’d probably grimace slightly.” Yeah, because work sucks, right? Oh, and we’ve just opened an office in Copenhagen. More profits. Bummer.
We’re not daft. We know that Sara Lee doesn’t get her hands doughy making the cakes and that the Laughing Cow, kept in an unnatural state of permanent pregnancy to provide milk for cheese triangles, barely raises a smile. Ben & Jerry’s is horrible, but I buy Innocent, Oatly, Firefly – to quote Bill Hicks, I love these products. What I don’t buy is this American anti-corporate “campus” culture. I once met the Executive Vice President of Strategy, Imagineering & Futurology, aged 45, at Orange. The door of his office simply said “Future Boy”. It had a Space Hopper in it.