I recently got a call from a USA Today reporter asking me to comment on Wish-Bone dressing’s new Salad Spritzer. “Salad spritzer?” I asked. He explained the concept: at only one calorie a spritz, the dressing is a boon to dieters. I was skeptical: Who can stop at a single spritz? But I was intrigued enough to go exploring—if not to the salad spritzer section of the supermarket, then to Wishbone’s Web site (www.wish-bone.com), where I discovered the marketing muscle behind this new product line. First, there is “Puttin’ on the Spritz,” an online fashion show with costumes designed by Chris March (billed as “the first-ever salad fashion show,” pace Robert Kushner’s brilliant vegetable couture from the 1970s). Second, there’s a TV spot that makes no bones, dare I say, about using sex appeal to sell the dressing. “I spritz a lot. And I still want more,” purrs the décolleté model. Which is no problem, we are assured by exercise guru Richard Simmons in a video testimonial: at only ten sprays per serving you pretty much can have as much as you want. Ah, that’s precisely the point. You inevitably will want more because the dressing is formulated to activate cravings, not diminish them. Even at ten sprays a serving this dressing is unlikely to help those who need it most, any more than the previous Wish-bone rollout of the Carb Options line did.
Launching any new product in a competitive marketplace is hugely expensive and not to be undertaken lightly. So it’s no surprise that corporations do extensive market research, including focus groups with consumers. This practice may seem innocent enough, but a recent documentary reveals the darker side of consumerism. Century of the Self, made by Adam Curtis for the bbc, explores the growth of mass consumer society in the United States and Britain. We’re well aware of Freud’s influence on twentieth-century psychology, but Curtis’s film shows how pervasive his ideas were, to the extent that they influence even our buying behavior. This state of affairs arose largely through the work of Freud’s nephew, Edward L. Bernays, who virtually founded the field of public relations. From his early promotion of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, Bernays moved on to corporate clients like General Motors, United Fruit, and Procter & Gamble, carrying his uncle’s theories of the unconscious and the id into the realm of marketing. (Bernays is credited with convincing American women of the 1920s that it was chic to smoke.) He believed that people are too irrational to know what is best for them (“too stupid to meaningfully participate in democracy,” as his daughter Anne puts it in the documentary), so they need to be directed in their choices.
What do Bernays’s methods have to do with sprayable salad dressing? It is the power of packaging and its concomitant marketing that persuades people to buy things they don’t know they need. Before we point fingers too quickly, I should note that corporations are not the only ones with a stake in mass psychology. No less an icon than Russel Wright brilliantly created tableware to sell as part of a total lifestyle, not just as emblems of contemporary design (see his Guide to Easier Living, written in 1950 with his wife, Mary). Savvy advertising influences demand and consumption by touching even the most mundane aspects of our lives. Still, I never realized there were people out there who spend time thinking about salad dressing.
But at MarketResearch.com I discovered that “Personality Traits Reflect in Salad Dressing Preferences!!!” [sic] Which leads me to ask: If I choose a classic vinaigrette over a Salad Spritzer, does that mean that I’m hopelessly fuddy-duddy, not open to new ideas, mired in tradition, in a culinary rut? I hate to think so, though I have yet to read the marketers’ full report. I prefer to consider this newfangled dressing an example of an ambitious pr campaign, what has unabashedly been called “controlled media manipulation” by none other than Matthew Freud, great-grandson of the man himself, and now head of London’s Freud Communications pr firm. A cynical statement, to be sure, but it’s less chilling than the words of Sigmund’s nephew. Writing in his 1928 book Propaganda, Edward Bernays flatly stated: “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.”
I think I’ll stick with my vinaigrette.