Alcohol Advertising and Symbolism

A familiar phrase is, “art imitates life.” It defines life as essential to art, but can we say the reverse? Could life imitate art? The phrase suggests that art reinforces cultural and social beliefs. Art is more than a product of reflection, it is a method by which we shape the world. Advertising is a good example to use with this theory for two reasons: first, media art caters to a broad diverse audience; and second, it is easily accessible and we see it everywhere: on television, in magazines, posters, and on billboards. Art both reinforces and constructs social and cultural categories, directing people to respond to it in predictable ways. So what does that look like?

Absolut Vodka’s long-running campaign is an example of how a broader message can be adapted to speak to specific cultural groupings. At its most fundamental level, it caters to an extensive audience and is very accessible. The standard image of the Absolut bottle is recognizable by most people, and has purposely been reproduced in every ad establishing it as a social symbol in America. Each advertisement includes a culturally significant person, place, object, or idea alongside the standard bottle. Absolut Vodka ads reveal mixed messages about culture to their various audiences masked on the surface by a culturally significant artifact.

The individual, tailored ads are separated into genres. When looking at a series of ads, we have a better idea of the collective cultural significance attached to the images. The text exists in relation to others. The image of the Absolut bottle has become a cultural icon, and the advertising aim is to make it recognizable as a distinct symbol of class to everyone who sees it. In order to make sense of the ad, the reader must identify the vodka bottle within the text. This expectation relies on the network of ads that have preceded it and the bottle-as-symbolic emblem of the brand. Instant identification of the symbol makes the reader of an Absolut ad a member of an exclusive club. The Absolut Vodka ad campaign aims to enroll everyone as a member of this club by stating that their “art” form, the vodka bottle, carries significant cultural reflections of society associated with the upper class that are relevant to all members regardless of their real class status.

The different genres of Absolut ads carry distinct cultural messages, and contain a universal class claim that is associated with the image of the vodka bottle. Absolut Vodka ads reinforce the cultural myth that American culture is defined in terms of class structure. However, it offers a mixed message about class that is defined and liquid: class can be bought. The Absolut campaign contains the idea that American culture is defined in terms of class by way of the object, setting, audience, and camera angle in the advertisement. The promotion challenges this idea by publicizing in a variety of magazines that reach people in all class structures. In effect, they are bridging a cultural class gap, by allowing such a diverse audience membership into an exclusive ad campaign. Not only is the advertisement selling the reader vodka, it is also selling the illusion of an earned societal position associated with the upper class.

The symbolic theme of class is exemplified in Absolut’s 2001 “Absolut Voted Off” campaign”. This ad was published in Entertainment magazine the week of October 19, 2001. The ad is very basic and shows four bottles of flavored Absolut Vodka grouped together on the left side of the page. The bottles are characterized by bright, warm colors such as yellow, orange, and purple. On the far right side of the page, not facing the audience, is the original Absolut Vodka bottle that is only revealing half of its cold, blue label. The text, “Absolut Voted-Off” appears at the bottom of the page. What does this ad reveal on the surface? At first glance it seems to be selling the new flavored vodkas, representing them as important and associated with a distinguished category. However, this advertisement is characteristic of the mixed messages portrayed by the Absolut advertising campaign.

When looking deeper we must ask ourselves as readers, relating to the theory art imitates life and life imitates art, what is the advertisement imitating here? The advertisement is imitating the American act of voting. This cultural activity is political at best. The objects, setting, audience, and camera angle of the ad all reinforce the belief that American culture is defined in terms of class structure, and that class can be bought. In this case, the four flavored vodkas are in a distinct class that the “Voted-Off” original vodka is not a part of. However, the original vodka is related to the others: it shares the same bottle, the same vodka, and the same text. The advertisement suggests that the original Absolut vodka bottle could gain acceptance into the distinct class by becoming flavored.

The setting of the advertisement builds on the cultural belief that America is class defined, but that movement within class structure is possible. The spotlight in the middle of the page is not highlighting either group specifically, but leaves a void that needs to be filled. But filled by whom? The ad suggests that the original vodka bottle can have a place next to the rest by leaving a space that is the appropriate size for such a transaction. However, the gap in the middle of the page can also hold a spot for the reader to fill. This involves audience participation by buying the product.

The audience of the advertisement plays a specific role in the ad, and supports a mixed message of class definition and mobility. The reader of the ad associates himself/herself as a member of the Absolut “club” by recognizing the image of the bottle within the ad. In the case of “Absolut Voted-Off,” the reader must choose which party to support, the flavored group or the lone original bottle. If the reader fills the gap in the ad he/she will be joining the class specific group that is associated with wealth: bright colors, strength in numbers, and security. The reader will also become a part of the majority that has voted off the minority. The ad is revealing a message about how culture is defined, in part, by class and is suggesting that as voters and consumers we have a direct say in which class we want to be associated with. In other words, Absolut isn’t just selling a taste, it’s selling a deeper cultural construct.

The theory art imitates life and life imitates art reveals important connections between symbolic structures and cultural beliefs. Media is mirroring important parts of American life and selling the images back with a product attached. However, the cultural and social myths that are being promoted are not always evident on the surface. And it’s at that point, at the symbolic interpretation, that meaning is made and brands are born.

 

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Inspiration in a Hong Kong Market

1929770_17290858361_6526_n.jpgWhile doing work on a project related to nutritional supplements in Asia I had the distinct pleasure of getting away for a day and exploring one of the many markets in Hong Kong. For anyone interested in the relationship between food and culture, these sorts of excursions are tantamount to spending a day in the Elysian Fields. The sights, smells, sounds, and general crush of life can produce sensory overload, but they are worth every second. You might think that food is just food, but in reality, food is as much a part of society as money, politics, and taxes. The growing or gathering of food, its consumption, and our attitudes about it all reflect the state of the economy, social classes, and tradition. And it serves as a great reminder of how we think about analyzing the world around us.

I would contend that we owe the widespread popular fascination with all things food-related, whether in academics, shows like Hell’s Kitchen, or the random “food porn” selfie to these most ancient bazaars and culinary settings. There is something absolutely primal to the act of eating, yes, but also to the exploration of what we eat, whether through taste, texture, sight, or any other sense. Food, like language and religion, is a foundational part of the shared human experience, and something that marketing folks often overlook.

So what is food?1929770_17290663361_4068_n.jpg It’s not as obvious as it may seem. And know that food has been a fixture in the study of culture from the beginning, I would hesitate to give a single answer. But it seems that the question of what exactly bounds food itself is an object that has been ignored or over simplified in the world of marketing and design. And yet, it is the central question that lies at the heart of debates over the ethical, cultural, aesthetic, and political debates of GMOs, vitamin-fortified staples, enhanced water, MSG, and even pink slime. Defining what makes food more of less “real” is central to how we talk about it, and for manufacturers, how they market it. Much of what you see in a market like this would be labeled as gastronomically valid, but much of it would not. With all the various competing perspectives, And what is contested between the competing communities of food practice, so to speak, revolves on the privileging of various biological, cultural and technological elements of food – preparation, harvesting, storage, presentation, and packaging all fall within competing interpretations of what is “right”. The point being that the “yuck” factor we so often attribute to one food or another has more to do with how we interpret food than it does with anything biological. Culture and context shape our understanding and acceptance (or rejection) of it.

Why do I mention it? Because it has everything to do with how we market it. 1929770_17290758361_2521_n.jpgFood is symbolically charged. It is wrapped up in deeply held beliefs that we carry with us whether we know it or not. And it’s something we need to be constantly aware of when in the field or out of it. How we experience the world matters and how we craft it into something that resonates is about touching the heart and soul.

 

 

Snack Foods and the Changing Culinary Chic

In it’s simplest definition, a snack is a small portion of food meant to hold one over between meals. In contrast, a meal is typically comprised of multiple items, has higher caloric content and is usually tied to rituals of time and location.

Historically, snacks were prepared from ingredients commonly available in the home. This has changed considerably over time with the new norm existing today as pre-made foods that are conveniently packaged and last seemingly forever.

But snack foods are not just treats anymore. They have to become part of the larger ingredient mix along with potatoes, carrots or butter. Frito Pie is on the menu alongside the $25 dish of shrimp etouffee. This may not seem important to the producer as long as products are selling at the store. But it validates a fundamental element of consumer behavior – the end user decides how to use any product he or she purchases. The challenge for the producer is to recognize the innovative ways consumers use their products and facilitate strategies that will help keep the trend going.  This means understanding the underlying cultural processes that have allowed this transformation to take place and how to capitalize on it in order to grow sales.

Some credit to the changing role of snack foods must of course be attributed to the inventiveness of snack producers. Restaurateurs and chefs have also been and will continue to be tremendous influencers.  Consumers, rather than turning to manufacturer websites and cook books are looking to the Food Network and local chefs not just for ideas, but also for validation of their culinary choices. Even subculture icons like Lux Interior of The Cramps (a rockabilly/punk fusion band founded in the 1970s) have helped shape the use of snacks in cooking – Mr. Interior had a deep penchant for Doritos Quiche.

To be sure, the snack is the inspiration. We see evidence to support this notion starting back in the 50’s with the introduction of recipe ideas for everything from corn flakes to Cheetos. But what accounts for the resurgence of using snacks in cooking in an age dominated by “healthy” foods, “quality” ingredients and of haute cuisine in the home? And what does this mean for a marketer or product development team? The simple is answer is that by understanding the deeper issues driving the transformation of how snack foods are used, it is possible to better innovate and drive sales over time. We have identified several areas that deserve special attention.

Snacks as Symbols

Meaning is produced and reproduced within a culture through various practices, phenomena and activities that serve as systems. Rituals associated with food represent a deeply ingrained structure by which meaning is propagated within a culture. In other words, a potato chip is more than food; it is representative of childhood memories, concepts of being a good or bad parent, regional affiliation and other symbolically charged concepts.

The brand itself is equally symbolically charged. This explains why a generic brand of corn flakes to top your tuna casserole may not be “good enough.” Only Kellogg’s communicates that the cook cares enough about the people eating. This also explains, in part, the reluctance of many to buy store-branded products (although other factors come into play as we see, for example, in times of economic crisis).

Flavor is less the issue than the need to create a dish that fits within the symbolic framework in which it is constructed and consumed. The implication is that it recipe ideas aren’t enough. These ideas must be tied to richer symbols. Package design, shelf positioning, etc. must all reflect greater symbolic structures and lead to the construction of new and unique traditions that work within the existing framework.

The Invention of Tradition

Traditions exist to preserve a wide range of commonly held ideas, practices and methods used by distinct populations. Food joins other elements like music, folklore and clothing to create culture. Beliefs or customs are taught by one generation to the next and actions are reinforced over time. The preservation of culture, however, becomes much more difficult in a postmodern world.

Through the emergence of tribal subcultures along with the ease and means to communicate and cross-pollinate we see many using brands as badges of affiliation. In practice, people are “inventing” tradition by endowing products with rich symbolic meaning. Product, therefore, becomes a means by which people artificially establish a past and validate identity in the present. Mom may have never actually made Frito Pie, but it helps the consumer maintain a sense of identity to believe that she could have.

Food as Novelty and Play

Finally, using snack foods as ingredients speaks to the very basic need to invent and play. Snack foods used in a way different from their “intended purpose” is novel. At a psychological level, novelty speaks to four basic principle elements:

  1. Thrill Seeking: the pursuit of activities and objects that are exciting, unusual and potentially dangerous.
  2. Experience Seeking: the pursuit of unfamiliar and complex environmental stimuli, as through cooking.
  3. Disinhibition: Sensation-seeking through engagement with other people; searching for opportunities to lose inhibitions by engaging in variety in food, sex, alcohol, etc.
  4. Boredom Susceptibility: the tendency to be easily bored by familiar or repetitive situations or people, or by routine work.

Beyond the sensory benefits of novelty, there is the need to use experimentation as a means of establishing cultural capital. Snack foods have become a means by which people not only attain psychological stimulation but also display to friends and loved ones that they are inventive and interesting.

Implications

It may be interesting, but what does it all mean? Simply put, it means that whoever can tap into these unconscious motivations, symbols, and practices can increase sales, grow customer loyalty and develop brands that are synonymous with enjoyment. We often interpret our products through a self-limiting, narrow focus. Understanding snack foods from the vantage point of “ingredient” opens a new series of delivery systems, product possibilities and messaging strategies.  After all, the customer will always decide how to use your product.