Tales From the Bottom of the Film Business

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What the f*** is wrong with us?

Working in commercials really shows you how fucked up our society is about food.

For one thing, when you see food in a commercial, you've probably figured out by now that it ain't exactly what you're getting when you chip the thing out of your grocer's freezer. It's a beautiful facsimile made out of the same ingredients, only better, by somebody the same as you, only better, at cooking things that look appetizing -- aka a food stylist. These are people who deploy tweezers, glycerin spray, and the occasional last-minute blow-torch action in the interest of making the stuff look like it does on the package: hot, moist, containing particles of victuals that you might recognize; in short, edible. Not to mention that there may be some digital color enhancement or air-brushing later on to remove anything that shouldn't have been there, and I'm not going to go into what that might have been. But of course, when you see something on TV, you can't smell it or taste it, so you are judging the potential yumminess of the foodstuffs presented purely based on looks. That's what gets your salivary glands going and destroys your impulse control -- which is both exactly what they're counting on and sad, considering that the looks you're seeing have very little basis in reality, and the fact that you shouldn't really judge what you should eat based on prettiness. I'd like to say that James Franco is so cute I could just gobble him right up, but really, I couldn't.

Then there's the fact that a lot of ads for eatables hawk it specifically by attempting to show you that the "food" being advertised will not, if you eat it, actually affect your body the way that actual food would. Take for instance anything with "light" in the product name, or, worse, its dreaded step-cousin "lite." Light n' Lively, Crystal Lite, Tasti-D-Lite. Generally these products are spokes-modeled by a woman who appears as if all of the growth that was supposed to happen at puberty was channeled vertically -- such as Heidi Klum, currently seen in ads for Dannon Light n' Fit, which is the name of a yogurt, not a Chinese gymnast. While we all do love Heidi for her perkiness and slightly dictatorial accent, the main reason she's the one selling this yogurt is because she looks like she doesn't actually consume food at all. So in effect, advertisers are selling you something you should eat by telling you that if you eat it, it will be just like you didn't, or at least like you ate it and then threw it right back up.

Then there are the foods that are sold with the tag-word "healthy." Healthy Choice, Healthy Request (because we all know that healthy people are demanding with their choices and requests, just look at those vegans), Hearty and Healthy, Light and Healthy, Le Menu Healthy (I'd like to have been at the pitch meeting for that one: "It's Frenchy and healthy, get it?!?!!!??!!"), etc etc. With ads for these products, the food stylists snap into overdrive because "healthy" naturally connotes "sans taste" to an American audience that is used to all flavor coming from fat and salt; those food tweakers spend a lot of time on the set primping the noodles to make the dish look at least not un-delicious. But it's not entirely clear to me what "healthy" is supposed to mean to people in these ads. In one I recently worked on for microwavable _________Healthy ________, the selling points they had to mention in the copy were the reasonable cost, how quickly it cooked, and that it steamed the vittles in the package to make them "tender" or "crisp," depending on whether they were talking about chicken or vegetables (and NOT "crispY," as one actor who sent us into overtime kept saying, no doubt because "crispY" is part of the advertising vocabulary used to describe potato chips and chimichangas). But not once in the spot did anyone actually say the product was good for you. Was that because "good for you" evokes your mom force-feeding you lima beans or because they weren't allowed to say it, because it didn’t meet certain standards?

Because there are rules about these things, and I just have to share with you as an aside some snippets that I found in my research -- What, she does research? -- in a book called The Handbook of Food Science, Technology and Engineering. Basically, it's what you can and cannot do when you name a food product. Here are some excerpts, because you can't make this shit up:

This product must contain at least 14% cooked bacon in total formulation.

Sauce is an expected ingredient of lasagna products and its declaration in the product name is optional.
Cheese Lasagna with meat: 12% meat.
Lasagna with Meat and Sauce: 12% meat.
Lasagna with Meat Sauce: 6% meat in total product.
Lasagna with Poultry: 8% poultry meat.

'Pork Cutlet' may consist of pork temple meat, inside masseter muscles, and small pieces of lean from the tip of pork jaws. These are flattened and knitted together in 'cutlet' size products by means of 'cubing' or 'Frenching' machines, or by hand pounding with 'cubing hammers.'

A 'Loaf' (other than meat loaf) consists of meat in combination with any of a wide range of nonmeat ingredients. These products are not identified with the term 'Meat Loaf,' 'Beef Loaf,' or the like but with designations, e.g. 'Olive Loaf,' 'Pickle and Pimento Loaf,' 'Honey Loaf,' 'Luxury Loaf,' and others that are descriptive.

A nonspecific loaf that must be qualified as 'Made in the USA.'

CHEESE (PASTEURIZED PROCESSED CHEESE FOOD OR SPREAD) A cheese food product with a standard of identity, but is not considered a cheese. Therefore, it cannot be used in meat food products where cheese is an expected ingredient, e.g., 'Cheesefurters' or 'Veal Cordon Bleu.' It is acceptable in non-specific loaves, etc.

1. If sold in fully labeled bulk containers, i.e. canisters, caddies, or similar containers, stick items do not have to be fully labeled unless they are individually wrapped.
2. If sold in bulk containers, i.e. canisters, caddies, or similar containers that are not fully labeled, stick items must be fully labeled.
3. If sold in small, fully labeled cartons, boxes or similar containers, (e.g. 3 oz net weight) that are only intended for retail sale intact, stick items may be individually wrapped and unlabeled."

There are so many things wrong with all of that that all I can say is, Wow. I've never heard of Luxury Loaf, Cheesefurters or Frenching machines, but now that I know they exist, the world is a much freakier place. Basically, though, it just shows you the rules that have been created for how you can find a way to call things you want to pass off as food but that have very little actual food in them something that at least sounds like something that won't send you screaming into the night.

Oh, and then there's how they advertise eating establishments. I'm not talking about the local ads where Sal the pizza guy stares into the camera like a deer in the headlights of a teleprompter while pronouncing stilted copy accompanied by flabby gestures of excitement. No, the ads I work on are for national chains, like Olive Garden or Red Lobster, or for fast food like Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonalds, Dominos, Subway -- there's a lot of it out there, believe me. The funny thing about these ads is that, while they do have images of food that is as pretty and plentiful as any you've ever laid eyes on, their advertising strategy generally rests more on the experience of being in close proximity to the food than eating it. For instance, McDonalds' current campaign, "I'm lovin' it!", shows images of busy soccer moms squeezing in a little fun time with the kiddos. Olive Garden commercials, which employ the tagline, "When you're here, you're family," show groups of people laughing and cavorting and saying dialogue you can't hear (One entertaining part of those ads for me: if they cast sassy and easily bored actors, the dialogue often quickly spirals downward in taste, creating improvised scenarios having more to do with things like bondage or incest than your standard restaurant chit-chat. Sometimes the clients freak out when they hear the actors talking about herpes while smiling and twirling their product on their forks...which just makes it funnier). The idea is that these families are having a super-awesome experience that really has very little to do with those stale breadsticks and that glop-covered cardboard they call pasta. Chili's is similar, only it's dudes hanging out with their buds and talking smack; Dominos' ads are about how many pizzas you can get for your small investment and how fast you can get them; and Taco Bell used to be all about that little talking Chihuahua, until people finally got sick of that, so those ads are now are asking you to "think outside the bun." In short, you're not deciding what or where you want to eat so much as deciding, Am I the kinda person who's lovin' it, the kind who likes to eat fresh, or the kind who knows when it's real?

And lest we forget, there are the food ads that are all about sex. These are ads with some deep-throated siren describing to you the taste of something really really good, most likely chocolaty, and at some point assaulting you with an extreme close-up of lips being licked. The strange thing is that most of these ads are directed at women, trying to tempt them with the naughty, naughty vice of eating things with calories, which all of us good girls who want to be bad must associate with other naughty naughtiness. In other words, forbidden food is hot. Oh, but the ads for alcohol? Those are directed at men. They nearly all feature scantily-clad babes making eyes at the drinking dudes, the implication being that 1) only men drink beer, which really pisses me off as a beer-drinking female, and 2) the only way a man will score with someone this hot is to get her drunk. And since Knocked Up, the idea that this is really and truly possible has taken root in the male consciousness to an even more absurd degree, and so ads seem to feature it even more. Thanks for that Judd Apatow. Every time some really wasted guy leers down my shirt and tries to buy me a drink, I'll think of you.

But aside from that, what really disturbs me in all this is, if aliens were to intercept these ads, what would they think that humans actually do for sustenance? Because they certainly wouldn't think that we use food for that. And then of course if they came across terms like "hide the salami" or "drink your milkshake," they'd be even more confused. But I think this just reflects the general confusion we have as a society about what food is for. Not that other societies don't have it too, based on foreign commercials. According to their ads, food in Spanish-speaking countries is really 85% about sex, and food in Japan is for…well, I'm really not sure what, but it definitely involves throwing, yelling, and American celebrities embarrassing themselves. Most ironically, if we didn't have all these issues around food and what entices us to eat, we probably wouldn't be so fat while simultaneously worshiping women who look like stick figures; we wouldn't have hyperactive children who are allergic to everything but high-fructose corn syrup and chicken nuggets; and we wouldn't think that our enjoyment of life hinged on where we went to dinner. And God forbid, if we didn't have all of these messages telling us what and how to eat and how it would make us feel, we would actually learn to figure that out for ourselves.


Blogger Nathan said...

Dominos is running a campaign now where they're eschewing food stylists in favor of having customers shoot pics of the pizzas they've actually received. And there's guy who's threatening a class action suit because fast food ads are sooooo far removed from reality that he considers it false advertising.

1:21 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Welcome to my world....missed your ranting and raving...

7:12 AM

Blogger Michael Taylor said...

Oh BTL, you've taken me back to my nearly twenty years of doing commercials -- product shots of McDonald's hamburgers, Pizza Hut pies, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, painstakingly lit and shot in quasi-pornographic slo-motion.

I do miss the money of those days, but not the queasy feeling of helping seduce consumers into becoming human vacuums, hoovering up every deep-fried. fat-and-salt laden morsel of highly processed "food."

As one who works on the other side of the television shit machine now -- making shows that are crammed in between all those commercials -- I may be just as guilty as my former self, but it feels ever so slightly cleaner.

Considerably poorer too, but so it goes...

Great post, as usual.

5:52 PM

Blogger FaysaL said...

it is a kind of wasting food for no reason.

3:59 PM

Blogger Audrey's Blogs said...

You are a talented writer!

I may never eat again!



12:44 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yet another reason why I became a vegetarian. Nothing is really as healthy as is seems. I've had enough.

8:26 AM

Blogger ♥Imani♥ said...

I've actually noticed this a lot too. It's really disturbing actually. Like those little microwaveable dinner thingies; they look soooo delicious on the cover but when you microwave them they come out wierd and sometimes slighty clumpy. And then you had to re-heat them because they can never seem to stay hot for too long. They still taste pretty decent...which is even more disturbing.

11:50 PM

Blogger Unknown said...

Brilliant rant...er, I mean post :)
But you're right, the way we are sold food is ridiculous -especially Burger King or McDonals, because what we actually get looks like it's been sat on and desaturated in Photoshop compared to what we see on the TV.

Oh, and if I see the same stock footage of a grill covered in flames in a BK advert I'm going to scream! They've been using the same clip for over a decade now.

6:52 AM

Anonymous Bob said...

I will never look at an Olive Garden commercial again without thinking about herpes. Thanks for the laugh!

1:03 PM


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