I’ve been watching The X-files again. It’s comfort food for my brain, like Star Trek or Stephen King books. One of the side effects of being a 90s kid is that X-files taught us all to be conspiracy theorists. We want to believe. I think we do believe, and we seem less crazy doing it than folks in older generations. As with a lot of social stuff that would make our grandparents climb the walls (being gay, race relations, foul language, spaghetti straps), this seems normal, nothing to even blink an eye at. Believing in aliens or government cover-ups is kind of a given, completely reasonable. And we have the internet, so we never have to feel alone. There’s always someone somewhere who believes the same weird shit. Thanks, internet. I know I, for one, see plots and schemes and machinations everywhere.
And now I shall tell you a silly story.
The Husband and I went to the coast to run a bunch of errands last week (which is why I didn’t post anything here – sorry about that). Because I take advantage of every opportunity to eat food I didn’t have to cook, we went out to lunch at one of those horrible casual dining places. Sitting there, surrounded by fake swapmeet Americana, I was weirded out. I don’t get out into civilization very often. Clearly. Anyway. They forgot my mayo, so I asked for mayo, and the waitress brought me one of those squeeze bottles. I hate that. Mayo should never be squeezed. Gross. But I noticed that the packaging was weird, so I read the back of the bottle (it’s a compulsion, I would have read it even if the label hadn’t caught my eye). It said a lot of strange stuff. “For restaurant use only.” Why? “Does not require refrigeration.” Sweet Jebus, why why why? “Labeled as [a different popular brand] east of the Rockies.” Hmmm. “The Cartouche is property of Unilever International.”
Wait, what? That sounds like some global military industrial complex and/or Indiana Jones nonsense. It just felt sinister, somehow, that sentence, like “The angels have the phone box.” So The Husband and I spent the rest of our subpar lunch making awful mayo-related conspiracy theory jokes. And then the check came. Have you noticed that every receipt lately has a fucking novel at the bottom about how you can take a survey and be entered to win a contest? I hate that, too. Mostly because it means that every single cashier I interact with has to give me a speech about it and I will never take your surveys. Never. But I read the thing, because compulsion, and at the very bottom it said in teeny letters: “Canadians will be subject to skills testing.” Schwaaaa? Why just Canadians? Tested by whom? For what skills? I mean, I know Canada’s a little strange, but are they mutants? Is this ubiquitous restaurant chain tasked with sussing out the fucking X-men through some sort of nefarious marketing scheme? What the hell is going on? Clearly, eating a lame chicken sandwich in a room that felt like a schizophrenic alcoholic’s garage had put me in something of an odd headspace. Is this how normal Americans feel all the time? Am I having culture shock in my own culture? Because I honestly thought for a half a second that I had taken the brown acid.
So we made the long trek back to the top of our mountain and I, being in a Mulder-ish mood, set out to look into this Cartouche situation. A cartouche is just a blank field with symbols on it, but this Cartouche with a capital C is the official name for the logo of this particular brand of mayo and its sister brand east of the Rockies. (A classic division of labor maneuver. The east coast doesn’t know what the west coast is eating. Well played, food-that’s-really-bad-for-you industry. Well. Played.) Interestingly, my own personal jar of mayo (a jar!) says nothing about the Cartouche or any other logo being the property of any multinational corporation. Wouldn’t it make more sense to put that information on all the mayo if you’re really concerned about copyright infringement? Who reads the condiments at restaurants when distracted by booze and half-price mozzarella sticks? Me, bitches, that’s who.
Apparently this logo has a long and storied history. It’s bloody boring, but it’s out there. Deep in the inky depths of graphic design geekery, I found this little nugget and it blew my mind: “The previous design lacked food appeal and emotion. The new identity celebrates the heritage of [name brand] mayonnaise and its quality ingredients and engages at an emotional level which helps in justifying its price point.” (I left out the brand name because I don’t want to get sued. You understand. But I assume you can guess which one I’m talking about, if you’re a mayo connoisseur.) First of all, some of these words are probably being used as industry jargon, rather than their normal uses. I’m completely ignorant about both food marketing and advertising. But, what does “food appeal” mean? Because it’s food. Why does food need food appeal? As opposed to what other kind of appeal that food might have?
But let’s talk about some of these other words. “Heritage” and “quality” stick out, because it seems like that’s not the sort of thing that could be conveyed just by changing the shape of a logo and adding a blue ribbon. It’s rather like judging a book by its cover. However. That shit works. I have absolutely bought things just because I like the packaging of one brand over another. This is exactly why store brands have the super simple styles on their labels, because they want to justify their cheap prices by convincing you that they don’t spend your money on fancy graphic designs. Using terms like “heritage” and “quality” and expressing those ideas through some sort of marketing magic on a label makes people want to buy that product because those things feel old-fashioned and therefore better. Like saying a company is “family-owned,” even though that has nothing at all to do with their actual business practices. Or putting a gray-haired granny figure on a tasty baked good that’s full of preservatives and emulsifiers and fake colors and flavors your granny never heard of. It makes us trust that product. Or saying something is “natural.” “Natural,” in this context, is an industry term that has nothing to do with ingredients, but refers to the number of mechanized steps that it takes to get from raw material to sellable units. I could be selling cocaine mixed with gunpowder (both made from perfectly natural substances, but so was the atomic bomb), and if it only took four robots to get it into the box, I could label it “natural” and some idiot would buy it and stuff it in their kid’s mouth. Especially if it was in a green box. Double especially if it cost two dollars more than the one that didn’t say “natural.” Now, my mayo story is silly and paranoid and somewhat hyperbolic, but this kind of psychological fuckery is not. This is the real conspiracy. Mulder would have a field day with this shit.
It’s one thing to go on and on about how we’re controlled by the media or by advertising, but when you get down to the nuts and bolts of it, the little things can affect us the most. Word choice, fonts, colors – we have lizard brain reactions to these things, and we don’t think about them when we go off on tirades about violent video games or boobs on billboards. But we’re being manipulated by them just as much, possibly even more because we don’t even realize what’s happening. Here’s the thing, and please forgive me if this sounds shitty in a white middle-class liberal kind of way: the dumber people get, the easier it is to control us using our emotions. The crux of this whole brand redesign was engaging “at an emotional level to justify a price point,” right? That basically says “Get their money by pushing the squishy spot on their feelings.”
Our school systems are failing miserably and we’re spoonfed vapid crap all day every day by tv and the internet and glossy magazines. But we’re happy with critical thinking and logic and reason going down the tubes, because we have emotion to fall back on. We’re a buzzword culture, perfectly willing to not pay attention to anything but the hot button words peppered in all the banal blah blah blah. We’re so outraged or inspired by such a small percentage of the words actually being used, we might as well speak in links and hashtags. (By the fucking way, while I have you here: I’ve seen a ton of folks posting memes lately about “In my day it was called a pound sign, not a hashtag, grumblegrumble…” It’s still called a pound sign, guys. You use it in a hashtag. They’re two different things. Slow your agro until you learn your terminology. Thanks.) My point is that the fewer people there are who care about real issues, the easier and easier it will be to get away with horrible, underhanded, monstrous shit. To quote John Oliver, “If you want to do something evil, hide it in something boring.” The line of what constitutes boring is moving, rapidly, to accommodate the lowest common denominator. So many of us don’t give two shits about the things that really matter, but by god when that cheesy music swells we know it’s our cue to cry.
And this isn’t just me ranting to rant or preaching intellectualism to an already pretty damn savvy choir. They’re not just mindfucking us for our money. This is directly affecting our educational system, our political structure, our economy, our health (that’s “schools,” “Obama,” “jobs,” and “abortion,” for those of you playing along with the buzzword game at home). But our food, man, our food. That’s the one that really pisses me off. This mind control stuff is everywhere, it’s desperately important that we be aware of it, but food is the way that it has the most immediate impact on us. We have to eat every day, more than once. Luckily we live in a country where that’s not particularly difficult, relatively speaking. And I’m not going to get all organic farmgirl on you here. Eat whatever the hell you want, I’m not trying to tell you what to do. I will admit to having had nothing but Cheetos for dinner more than once in my adult life. I just told a story about eating crap restaurant food. I know that neither of those is real food. But they’ve made things that aren’t real food cheaper and easier to get. Therefore, the people with the least money (and, not coincidentally, the least education) buy that shit by the ton. Then these capitalist scumfucks make their money back through vertical integration when we get cancer or diabetes or heart disease because we’re working multiple jobs just to be able to afford Kraft mac and cheese and premade meatfood product and we don’t have time or energy to garden or even make a thing from scratch. We’ve given up control over what we put in our bodies and we think it’s normal. And over what? Money? Money is a fake, stupid system. Tomatoes are real and you can eat them to stay alive. Better than money.
A less silly story, as an example of what I’m talking about: I was talking to someone in my family at Christmas about how hard it is to eat healthy food when on food stamps. I tried to explain to her that frozen or canned veggies aren’t as good as fresh ones, but they’re cheap, they’re covered by WIC, and they’re better than no veggies at all. I told her I’d get her a spice rack for Christmas, so she could buy plain tomato sauce instead of that spaghetti sauce in a jar. It’s way cheaper and doesn’t have all the sugar and preservatives that Ragu or whatever has. She laughed and called me a hippie. And her four-year-old is diabetic. This is what I’m dealing with. “Normal” food is, largely, not great for you, but we crave the familiar, the comfortable, the easy, the cheap. “Normal” isn’t good enough. We’ve been trained to never expect anything more, anything better. Organic or wholesome food is for rich people. Obviously. It’s class warfare, dictated by business bigwigs: “Keep them stupid, keep them sick, keep them in debt, and they’ll work their fingers to the bone for the entirety of their miserable lives just to barely get by. They’ll pay our bonuses and spend all their money on shit they don’t need to furnish a lifestyle we tell them they want. They’ll fucking adore us for it because we’re rich and they’ll want what we have because we’re better than them. Praise Jesus.”
Fuck that shit. Fuck those people. Fuck their telling us all we have to have flatscreens and iPhones. Fuck their ninety-nine cent cancer burgers. Fuck their substandard educational system and their refusal to raise minimum wage. Fuck their making billions off our student loan debt and our medical bills. Fuck their planned obsolescence. Fuck their emotional manipulation. Fuck their arbitrary morality. Fuck tying your dignity and your self-worth to material things. Fuck living by someone else’s standards. Wake up and smell the bullshit. Then spread it on some dirt and grow tomatoes in it. That’ll show ’em.