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Sucralose--the latest fashion accessory?

Sucralose--the latest fashion accessory?

Today’s adventure in marketing is courtesy Facebook’s targeted advertising. When Facebook started including ads on their site, they decided it would be a great idea to target the ads based on the copious amounts of personal information we so conveniently supply them with. As a single woman, I get lovely suggestions of how to end my loneliness with X dating site, how to lose weight with the amazing new açai berry diet, and, of course, various invitations to check out the Facebook groups for retailers such as Victoria’s Secret, and now, oddly enough, Splenda.

Splenda has launched what I can only imagine is a rather experimental marketing campaign through Facebook to create pre-release hype for their latest product, Splenda Mist® (see the group here). Free of those pesky calories, and so portable– it’s just the size of your lipstick (You do own lipstick, right?). The Facebook group defines its mission as such:

To help you get your hands on the latest trend in sweetness. Stick around for a bit and take a look at the photo gallery, become a fan, take a poll, mix yourself a drink, and most importantly, sign up for a free full-sized bottle of SPLENDA® MIST™ and hit “SHARE” to tell your friends about new SPLENDA® MIST™ before we run out.
Trend, of course, is the key word here. All the images in the photoshoot demonstrate the potential of Splenda Mist® to be a fashion accessory, such as the one above which displays it amongst other “necessities” for the girl on the go. Another photo shows all the different tube designs you can choose from, allowing you to express your personality even with what sweetener you use.
Pour a little calorie-free sweeter on me, baby.

Pour a little calorie-free sweeter on me, baby.

Finally, we have this charming image to the right there. Showing the tiny mist bottle next to the lipstick suggests not only that it’s highly portable, but that it has the potential to become one of your purse staples, part of your daily routine. I mean, whichever marketer figured out how to convince us that lipstick is something that “all” women need to carry around with them every day was, although rather evil, brilliant from a marketing perspective. They made accessorizing a necessity.
The accessory image Johnson & Johnson (who owns Splenda) is pushing for is almost too blatant to be called subtext. The real question is, “Why?”  Why has Splenda decided to make this a woman’s product?
This is part of the changing role of food in our society from necessity to accessory. Your latte, your yogurt, and now, your sweetener. While Fast Food has focused on packaging manliness (see Burger King’s Manthem campaign), diet foods (note, not healthy foods.) are on a mission to help women express their “inner divas.” They have decided to cash in on our slavish drive to be beautiful (and thin. I need to stress, once more, the difference between thin and healthy. In food marketing, they become synonymous, which just simplifies our complex bodies.). Marketers are trying to position themselves as our girlfriends who understand our needs.
Over the summer, I noticed Crystal Light’s “U Pump It Up” campaign, a shiny group of advertisements that looked straight out of Elle Magazine. These promised to take your water from “plain” to “pumped,” all the while using words like “vibrant,” which tend to be used to advertise beauty products. Water is simply not fashionable enough (it doesn’t come in pretty colors). The companion to these ads was a social networking site, upumpitup.com (flash and music alert!). This site, in addition to providing outlets such as discussion forums, also offered the advice of “wellness experts” in beauty, fashion, dating, and fitness.
Welcome! This is a place where women meet up with friends, inspire each other to do more of the things that make us feel great, and help share that good feeling with others! Join our lively community and try the challenges you’ll find here.
The website may say “Powered by Crystal Light” all over it, but the site designers cleverly try to pretend that the focus is women. Women inspiring each other to be well, thanks to a product which claims to be a substitute for water.
The idea behind campaigns like Crystal Light’s and Splenda’s is to convince their target audience that these products help define you, help make you more yourself. Though we see the commercials and understand that they are designed to get money out of us, the tone tries to convince us that really, it’s about us. Yes, they want our money, but spending our money on these products is just helping us be more ourselves. Like fashion magazines, they provide personality quizzes such as Crystal Light’s “Flavor Wheel,” which determines which Crystal Light flavor best suits your personality (because, you know, you can’t just drink a flavor that you like or anything), or, to go back to Splenda, the “How Sweet are You?” quiz. Like Crystal Light, the Facebook community includes all kinds of extras to make you more you. It promises that their spritz can “spice up your life” if you use their mist to make cocktails. You’ll be the life of the party for sure with their pomegranate julep recipe (of course, it’s pomegranate. Pomegranate is so in right now.).
This becomes even more insidious when you realize that all of their cocktail recipes are for alcohol-free versions of the drinks. Facebook, which started out as only catering to college students, certainly has a large enough population of women 21 and older to market to. Instead, the pseudo-cocktails make me believe that they are, in fact, marketing at least partially to teenagers. I could go on and on about how difficult teenage years are self-esteem-wise and how these calorie-counting messages are damaging, but I feel at this point you either agree with me whole-heartedly or you don’t. As much as we would like to believe that we are stronger than the media, these messages are designed specifically to get under our skin (if you’d like to read more about this, I’d recommend Malcom Gladwell’s Blink.). This suggests that they’re trying to get young girls hooked on calorie counting.

Insecurity is a powerful force for marketers to play with, and, according to our culture, women have it in droves (of course, men do too, but we tend not to focus on that). As People magazine has an article gossiping about which celebrities have gained weight next to one about those who are frighteningly thin, as we watch makeover shows that try and tell us that “all women are beautiful” as long as they follow certain rules of fashion (which will guarantee them a date, of course), we are expected to be vulnerable and confused. Marketers take advantage of this by pretending to be on our side, saying that they understand our plight, and suggesting that if we only buy their product we will get to the heart of who we really are, and all our confusion will magically go away. This  “real woman” discourse, ultimately, has the exact same subtext it pretends to be liberating us from. I know, no surprise, right?  But I keep seeing these campaigns popping up, and I’m sick of the unhealthy lifestyle they promote. Someone needs to point it out.

On a note not precisely related to the campaign, I must at admit that I find the product itself a little strange

Do raspberries really need sweetener

Do raspberries really need sweetener?

in the first place. I know that one of the secrets to advertising new products is, of course, to demonstrate that your product fits a need that the consumer had no idea they even had, to make things that are actually pretty simple suddenly very difficult. Nevertheless, I’m very confused as to the actual purpose of Splenda Mist®, offensive marketing campaign aside. Who goes around sweetening things? Do that many people buy fresh raspberries and then have to make them sweeter (my inner food activist weeps at the thought!)? Is it really going to become the cool thing to bring your own sweetener to a party? I can’t resist the pun– I’m mystified.

Just take a look around Portland, San Francisco, New York, or London: the Slow/local/sustainable Food movement is making a dent in the food market. Powell’s has a special display in the cookbook section dedicated to literature that has come out of the movement. Just leaving my apartment, I pass by Burgerville, a Northwestern burger chain that prides itself on using local ingredients and sustainable methods. The UK TV’s food channel has the “Local Food Hero Award,” a reality tv show which awards businesses that specialize in local foods. San Francisco’s Ferry Plaza Farmer’s Market is becoming a major tourist destination in the city, as is the farmer’s market in New York’s Union Square. Organics are everywhere from Walmart to Safeway. It’s gotten to the point where even McDonalds is trying to play the game with its “What We’re Made Of” (link to McDonald’s website. Sorry.) advertisements, which attempt to portray the company as being conscientious of its suppliers (Check out “From Farm to Restaurant” section, which has suspiciously been “coming soon” since June.). This approach is the herald of a new era for fast food: adapt or strike back.

Unsurprisingly, fast food isn’t going down without a fight; while McDonald’s plays the healthy game, other chains, such as Burger King and KFC have a new strategy: they are positioning themselves as being the anti-snobs, the every day guy. Though they never explicitly mention Slow Food or any other related movement, these companies directly target them, dismissing them as stuck-up and out of touch with the average consumer.

About a year ago, Burger King came out with “Manthem.” The idea was to play off of the 70’s women’s movement. They had men singing out to the tune of Helen Reddy’s “I am Woman,” proclaiming liberation from the oh-so terrible oppression of their girlfriends’ “chick food” (vegetables, quiche, and tofu), which was simply not filling or manly enough for them. At core, their strategy was to turn health concerns into a gendered issue. Lyrics such as “I will eat this meat, until my innie turns into an outie” conflates any worries we might have had about the healthiness of fast food with the American obsession with thinness. This, suggests Burger King, is a girlie worry; so go head, eat our meat.

But the commercial goes even deeper than that–Burger King also associates women with the upper (or upper-middle) class as it celebrates men as being working class heroes. The only female character (aside from a few sprinkled in for decoration) in the commercials tries to force her boyfriend to eat dinner at a fancy, snotty restaurant. Chick food, apparently, does not come cheap. Is the whole association ridiculous? Clearly. But Burger King is out for working-class men (and a few women who proudly disassociate themselves from the snotty health-obsessed.), which, as you’ve probably noticed from this election’s obsession with “Joe Six-pack,” is the current image of the stereotypical American middle class.

This trend is still out there in KFC’s latest ad series: The $10 Challenge (link goes to the commercial, uploaded to Youtube). Here, a mother and her two kids attempt to make a fried chicken dinner on a $10 budget but with the current high cost of food, have to resort to going to KFC. The pristine supermarket, with its brick walls and green accents, cunningly emulates Whole Foods or other “foodie” grocery storie; KFC wants us to believe that that wholesome home-cooked meals that the food movement champions simply aren’t feasible in our current economy.

Fortunately, judging from the reactions I’ve seen both in the YouTube comments and the wonderful world of food blogs (which, granted, tends to be biased against fast food. See here and here.), KFC has misread the market. In fact, the backlash against this campaign is so strong that googling “KFC $10 challenge” leads to critical articles and forum postings but nary an official link. As one YouTube commenter (using the name lvingwell) suggested, “Any frugality 101 student could whip this challenge in a heartbeat!” . At the same time, I think these commercials point out an issue that we food activists have a difficult time dealing with: even as we push for better food, we are also pushing for more expensive food. Even before the market crash, this was an issue, and it’s only getting worse.

Fast food is tapping into the cracks of Slow Food’s marketing technique. The food movement has become an upper class movement; even the blog “Stuff White People Like” (which could just be as easily known as stuff yuppies like) has farmer’s markets on its list (As a side note, McDonald’s launched a campaign for their southern chicken sandwich featuring Black actors at the same time as “What We’re Made of.” Though the WWMO commercials don’t actually have any actors in them, I have to wonder whether they saw it as attracting a “White” market as a counterpoint to their southern chicken.). The elegant cookbooks offer recipes that even I, a foodie who doesn’t flinch at the thought of making Thai green curry entirely from scratch, probably wouldn’t make. Fast Food may be playing dirty, but they’re playing off of real issues.

And so, this is why I’m heartened to see advertisements on buses and the MAX for Oregon-based programs that make it possible for food stamps to buy fruits and vegetables. This is why I support the efforts of Ann Cooper, a school lunch reformer who does her best to make sure kids get nutritious, balanced lunches. If the food movement stays a movement for the privileged, it’s going to fizzle. If we move in new, more comprehensive directions, we’re actually going to change things.

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From the Cracked Mirror is a blog about culture, both high and low, including art, literature, film, food, and advertising from a progressive and feminist perspective. I’m here to critique, elucidate, wonder, and gush...

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