Marketing Food in a World of Global Identities

Food is a sensitive subject in many ways. It’s more than sustenance, it’s how we define ourselves – and others. In a more global world, cultural and ethnic boundaries are increasingly becoming more permeable. Food in particular is available in more ethnic diversity than ever before. And therein lies a paradox. As diets become more different, they also become more similar. As individual tastes find greater opportunities to explore, the world shrinks just a bit. I can find Ethiopian cuisine in rural Indiana even as I find KFC in Beijing.

One way of reading this paradox is to shift from thinking of food in terms of “model” to “style”. The consumption model is a concept that refers to a community, nation, etc. “Style” refers to individual behavior, which, while culturally bound in many respects, is increasingly untethered from tradition. The individual’s food patterns lose any reference to a sense of collective belonging; the family, the social group, their economic class, the local community. They become driven by their subjective choice and hedonistic or ideological nature. So style choices become subject to a diversity of options and contexts. Food consumption becomes an expression of self more so than an extension of cultural norms.

In this sense, self-identity is determined more by lifestyle where people are presented a diversity of choices in all areas of their lives. The self is a reflexive project sustained through the routine development and sustainment of a coherent narrative of self-identity. However, while we are more likely to identify ourselves as being individuals, as creative as we get, it is our social interactions that regulates this sense of identity.

This paradox makes marketing food increasingly complex. Do we tell stories about the myth of the food or the product? Do we sell to the masses or do we find points of meaning among subcultures, cultures of practice, etc.? Do we adapt messaging to specific contexts and to what degree? Programmatic and hyper-targeting have allowed us to narrow the field and message to potential customers and consumers with amazing precision, but there are limits to what these tools can do. They don’t adapt to the shifting contexts and psychological factors that govern our decisions. Which means the role of creative, strategy, and research become ever more complex and important as we work to resolve the paradoxes surrounding food. The data is comforting because it is fixed. It lends a veneer of scientific legitimacy to the things we create. But, we have an opportunity, not just with how we market food, to bring an more expansive lens to the collection, management, and curation of messaging. We have an opportunity to spark more intimate conversations and connections.  

The diversity of foods across the globe has made food a much more democratic facet of modern societies. As a style, it is something that consumers are increasingly food-literate and empowered to comment on. Contributing to this are the swathe of entry points into the world of food for the modern consumer: celebrity cooking shows, foodie magazines, websites and food festivals. Here everyone is invited to participate in a range of cuisines that we might never eat. Like sports, you don’t have to play to be a member of the club.

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Art, Advertising, and Food

From da Vinci’s late-15th-century “Last Supper” to Dana Sherwood’s contemporary videos of cakes being devoured by baboons, to The Food Network’s Cake Wars, food and art have always been inseparable. No single generalization can blanket our engagement with food across the broad range of media, from oil on canvas to fermented cabbage, or the variety of actions undertaken, but we can explore universal whys behind our food. At its simplest level, food looks, tastes, and smells good. It is fundamental to our existence.

But beyond that we interact with food intimately, consume it, ingest it, digest it—and internalize it in multiple senses—and with multiple senses. Food defines ordinary life and special occasions alike. It can create pleasure and provoke shame. A vehicle for stories, it prompts nostalgia and inspires utopian dreams. It embodies generosity, community, culture. It causes pollution and contributes to climate change. It’s in the kitchen, at the drive-through, on TV, filling up Instagram. It is fast and slow, super and junk, street and Michelin-starred. As long as art has been made, artists have found in food an endlessly elastic metaphor, and today’s artists use it for varied investigations of the body, identity, gender, community, the domestic, the sacramental, economics, politics, and the environment. 

Food is a basic human necessity. Art exists far down the continuum of biological need. Yet both serve to define Homo sapiens as a species. Humans are the only animals that cook and the only ones to create symbolic representations of reality. These two acts—the essential and the essentializing—have repeatedly converged in human history. From the beginning, in fact.

Since the creation of the cave paintings at Lascaux, food’s visual form has presented a challenge to virtuosity, inviting artists to imitate reality or redefine it. Food brings to the table the enduring themes of desire and transience. Food is an important aspect of how we document ourselves and our lives, even though it is very mundane. It isn’t just something we consume, it’s something we do. It’s not just a critique of other people but an introspective act.

Food is a medium with which to create emotion and, through emotion, to convey ideas. Caravaggio’s painted figs and apples expressed a poignant truth about time’s corrosive effect on beauty. Perhaps the same can be said about how we create advertisements for hamburgers, coffee, or tofu. Perhaps the same should be said. The outcomes of food-based advertising are irreconcilably different and dependent on its cultural role; the starting point is not.

Technicolor Malt Liquor and All-Night Fieldwork

In its original formulation, Sparks was one of the first alcoholic beverages to contain caffeine. Its other original active ingredients included taurine, ginseng, and guarana, the backbone ingredients of traditional energy drinks. It also contained 6% alcohol. Packaged in a can that looked like a AAA battery, its labeling boldly and loudly stated all of its ingredients and its 6% alcoholic content by volume.  Its flavor was similar to other energy drinks mixed with malt liquor, having a tart, sugary, synthetic taste. Its color was a vibrant day-glow orange. All of this added up to a drink that catches the eye. Sparks was a catalyst for exploring a wilder side. It was what you took to a party, a kickball game, a rave or an outdoor concert.

Ethnography involves significantly more than one-on-one interviewing. The whole humankind is riven with contrasting practices, cultures, tongues, traditions and world views. A cultural context may exist on levels as diverse as a workplace, a family, a building, a city, a county, a state, a nation, a continent, a hemisphere etc. A cultural context provides a shared understanding of meaning provides a framework for what “works” in the world. It is what helps you recognize “your kind” in all senses of the word. Getting at this sort of knowledge can’t be uncovered exclusively through the interview process. So in the case of Sparks, this meant meeting with our key informants and their friends. It meant going out on the town and being part of the activities, not just asking about them. Inevitably, this led us to bars, parties, etc. Being in the moment, taking advantage of unexpected fieldwork situations to gather information, became the unspoken mantra of the research.

And it is out of these moments that good insights, not just data points, begin to emerge. In one case we found ourselves at the apartment of a 28-year-old male living on the Upper East Side. He had gotten into the recruitment mix because he was making under $50,000 a year (the majority of Sparks drinkers were not affluent and so the client had asked that we cap the incomes). However, the participant, Marco, was taking time off from his job as the head of social media for a major clothing brand. At the time he left he was making upwards of $300,000. So Marco had gotten into the mix on a technicality. He clearly fell outside the segmentation scheme, but as it turned out, our day with Marco was instrumental to the success of the project. As it turned out, while he stocked his pantry with high-quality wines and liquor, he was also an avid Sparks fan. Not so much for its energy properties, and certainly not the flavors, but because it allowed him to reconnect with what he saw as his rebel past. Marco recounted his early years in New York, struggling to get by and living a romanticized quasi-punk existence. Every Sunday, Marco would spend the day in Brooklyn with his pre-affluence friends building and riding mutant bikes and the searching out the “worst” or “most ridiculous” drink possible. For Marco, and for almost all the Sparks fans we met, Sparks became something that not only gave them symbolic license to act in ways they normally wouldn’t, but also provided them with a sense of connection to their youth.

While each individual and situation in the fieldwork was unique, patterns did emerge. And when things started to click, it was precisely because we’d found ourselves engaged in the absurd. The questions that needed to be asked and the observations that need to take place could have only happened by breaking away from traditional methods.

Sparks isn’t as simple as the obvious functional benefits or flavor. It’s property that is guarded, like someone’s stash. It’s a mechanism for rekindling friendships. It’s an excuse to treat life as performance art. And most importantly, it’s a symbol that tells everyone the drinker has license to break the rules and to turn the night into something absurd. Inevitably, when you’re drinking Sparks, the expectation is that you’ll be out late engaging in the unexpected. In one case it meant heading to a rave in in the Bronx, followed by a sunrise trip to Hoboken to find a place that served legendary waffles. In another, it set the stage for semi-nude wrestling on the front lawn in the cold and damp of a Portland winter. The important thing to take away from this is that a pattern of behavior emerged that we wouldn’t have gotten had had we simple conducted an interview or run a survey. We had to be in the moment. That’s how you change the game.

Cultural Meanings and Breakfast

It is a frigid, snowy morning. I have a loaf of bread baking in the oven, a jar of blackberry preserves at the ready, and several slices of ham waiting to go into a pan. The dog is curled up at my feet while my wife and daughters are still in bed, though I’m certain the smell of baking bread will rouse them soon enough and this weekend ritual will begin anew. This is a radical departure from what happens most days. Most days it’s a matter of grabbing what you can.

Human beings have, of course, been eating something for a morning meal forever, but it hasn’t always been so defined by the foods we associate with breakfast. Indeed, it was often whatever was left over from the night before or could be prepared with a minimal degree of effort. Historian Ian Mortimer suggests the Tudors invented modern breakfasts in the 16th century. As people increasingly came to work for an employer, rather than working for themselves on their own land, they lost control of their time, and had to work long, uninterrupted days without sustenance. A hearty breakfast allowed them to work longer days. The Industrial Revolution and the move from farms to factories formalized the idea of breakfast further. But there is more to breakfast than its function. It is wrapped up in symbolism and cultural change.

There are foods that have probably always been connected to breakfast. Oatmeal and other porridges are present early in the prehistoric record, and their invention may have changed the course of human history. Analysis of stone age tools indicate pancakes have been in the mix for eons. In fact, Otzi, the world’s oldest naturally preserved human mummy, is thought to have eaten a wheat pancake as one of his last meals.

For many, if not most Americans, the combination of bacon and eggs forms the basis for the archetypal hot breakfast. Eggs have long been a popular breakfast food, perhaps because fresh eggs were often available early in the day, but their partnership with bacon is a 20th century invention. In the 1920s, Americans typically ate fairly light breakfasts, so public relations pioneer Edward Bernays persuaded doctors to promote bacon and eggs as a healthy breakfast in order to promote sales of bacon on behalf of Beech-Nut. And so it was that the iconic breakfast combination was born. The American breakfast landscape was again altered in the latter half of the 1800s. In 1863 Dr. James Caleb Jackson invented granola. In 1894, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg accidentally created a flaked cereal when a pot of cooked wheat went stale. Kellogg tried to save the wheat by putting it through a roller. It dried in flakes and corn flakes was born. That little mistake changed our breakfast traditions forever. Cereal was  convenient. It didn’t need to be cooked and it had a relatively long shelf life. Packaging made it simple to transport and to store. It saved time and effort. It fit in with a modernizing world. The larger breakfast of bacon and eggs didn’t disappear, but it was largely relegated to the weekend when time was less of a pressing factor.

And it is this shift to the weekend that is important because breakfast has become less of a way the family starts the day, and more an ideal, a representation of a life most people haven’t the luxury to take on.  Quite simply no one has time to sit down to the table and eat, let alone to cook breakfast. There are buses to catch, cars to get started, errands to run before work. There is the early-morning trip to the gym, the walking of the dog, the flight to catch. Breakfast  has become either a necessity we deal with or, and this is to my mind the interesting part, a celebration. It might be a celebration of “slow living” or bringing the family together on the weekend, but the deeper underlying element is that the meaning of breakfast changes. It is something to be savored at specific points in time.

Breakfast is now a liminal space between the chaotic pace of the weekday and the equally chaotic pace of the weekend. And that has a huge impact on the food we prepare and how we prepare them. The Saturday or Sunday breakfast is a clear space, a point of calm. The morning roles we perform throughout the week (parent, teenager, etc.) are dropped and replaced with something more egalitarian, in many cases. Rather than breakfast symbolizing the start to a busy day where actions and behaviors are strictly kept in order to get specific things done, everyone is involved in the “performance” of breakfast and the duties are less strict. Alternatively, the celebratory breakfast sees us take on roles specific to the moment – dad the baker, mom the storyteller, boyfriends become expressions of romantic fiction made real as they prepare the perfect avocado toast, etc. The point is that breakfast provides a time for us to explore alternative identities that are fleeting and therefore precious. The act of making becomes as important as the food itself.

The rethinking of what breakfast means in this particular context ultimately has an impact on the ingredients we choose to cook with. As we allow ourselves to slow down and drift into moment largely outside of time, our ingredients can become more indulgent, more refined, or more experimental. We buy organic bacon from the local farm and break out the Irish butter that sells for $8 a pound. We crack open a box of Fruity Pebbles (an unhealthy product we might refrain from during the week) and add them to our waffle mix simple because it’s fun. We make huevos con chorizo to go with the bread our Swedish friend taught us to make. There is a purity to this, a sense of personal transformation, even it’s only for an hour out of the week. From a marketing perspective, this opens up a world of creative opportunities.

But is there a level of relevance beyond breakfast? Of course there is. Culture isn’t static, it is subject to change. That means your product and your brand are reflections of that cultural and symbolic give and take. In marketing and advertising, reaching the deeper elements of meaning play a key role in determining the success or failure of any campaign, strategy, or innovation. Through proper, thoughtful deployment of verbal, visual, and performative elements, companies can strengthen their reach to their customers by expressing the deeper elements of what a product, an action, an activity mean. The catch is recognizing there’s another layer of meaning just below the surface. What people tell you they believe isn’t necessarily a reflection of the “truth”, but rather a series of “truths” that are shaped by context and time. Regardless of whether you’re brand makes organic oats or auto parts, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Is there synergy between what you’re trying to convey and the underlying system of signs,  symbols, and actions that govern interpretation by the consumer?
  • What elements of culture influence the way different combination of images and words are perceived?
  • Are there stories and archetypes that can be directly associated with your product of brand?
  • Are the different symbols and signs used in your communications coherent?
  • Have you considered how deep metaphors could influence the way your idea is perceived and acted upon?
  • Do you foresee any clashes in meaning between what you seek to project and what your audience may perceive?
  • Can customers associate your visual, auditory, olfactory, and tactile stimuli with your product or service?

Sending the wrong signals can be destructive to your brand. It negates whatever intent you may have. But getting those signals right gives you a leg up over your competition. It drives innovation, creativity, and more effective strategies.

And with all of that, it’s time to pull the bread out of the oven, rouse the family, and celebrate the day.

Grey Salmon and Building A Brand

A few years back, people were left reeling after ABC revealed in a piece on farmed salmon a widespread use of chemical coloring in the industry. Following the report, much of the public voiced concerns, outrage in some cases, over the chemicals used and a general feeling of deception about the practice’s existence, even though this is hardly a trade secret. Even so, the notion of farmed salmon having the color of their flesh altered in any way was disconcerting to many and there are countless websites and journals calling into question the products stemming from salmon farming specifically and aquaculture in general.

But while many consumers and consumer groups, were and are shouting for more transparency in the industry around the labelling of synthetically colored salmon, the question remains: is colored salmon actually bad for us to eat? And should we be encouraging the industry to abandon the practice in place of a chemical-free farmed salmon—one with a decidedly less appealing grey flesh? There are a couple of overarching themes that need to be explored when thinking the problem through.

Biology. So what is it that makes wild salmon pink? The chemical in question can be found in nature. Astaxanthin is a naturally occurring antioxidant, meaning that it helps to protect cells from damage and happily turns wild salmon pink. Functionally, synthetic astaxanthin used by aquaculturists is the same. The synthetic compound will have exactly the same effect in the body of the farmed fish as it does in the wild. In the wild, it is a natural process which occurs when fish consume a diet of algae and krill. The same process is mimicked with farm salmon, meaning they are receiving the same nutrients they would in nature, and their bodies metabolize astaxanthin as they would in nature.

The process, as it turns out, is about more than visual appeal. Astaxanthin is essential to the salmon natural reproductive cycle and functions as a provitamin, being converted to vitamin A. Salmon are unable to make astaxanthin themselves, needing a dietary supply for these vital functions. It just happens to have a pink pigmentation to it, which in turn impacts the salmon flesh. So the notion of “dying” is something of a myth. Ultimately, there isn’t a lot of difference between wild-caught and farmed salmon, at least for the more reputable farms, simply because farmed salmon are fed a diet that seeks to maximize the fish’s natural nutrition and mimic what they would eat in a wild scenario. Major farmers will give their fish a diet that keeps their fatty acids as similar to that of wild salmon as possible – it’s a matter of flavor and, in turn, profits.

To be sure, there are ample arguments why NOT to eat farmed salmon, all of which are open to debate. Contaminants in the water, the types of feed used, and a host of other issues are all relevant, and I’m certainly not advocating one position or another. But color is hardly one of them.

The Ick Factor. Beyond biology, there’s also the matter of how we respond to foods that don’t fit out psychological frame.And grey salmon falls into that category. A study by DSM showed that shoppers are more attracted to darker shades of salmon. And that added color can be priced higher in part because of its resemblance to wild salmon. Not dying farmed salmon would make it more affordable, but only if people would actually purchase salmon that’s not pink, which doesn’t seem likely. We have a cultural understanding of how ingredients and dishes are “supposed” to be. These reflect notions of cleanliness, nature, purity, and an array of other norms. Consequently, eating grey salmon would be reminiscent of eating blue bread – beyond the potential novelty, it simply doesn’t fit our understanding of what’s “right”. Furthermore, grey is a color often associated with decay or blandness in our society. So in addition to grey salmon falling outside our idea of what salmon “should be”, it also signals associations with unhealthiness and death. Pretty heavy, yes, but relevant if you’re farming or selling salmon for a living.

We learn from those around us what’s worth eating and what should be avoided, and those categories vary between regions. But somehow, the reminder that taste  is so very relative, and so very learned, never fails to shock. The same holds true when we think about how food should look. Ultimately, visual appeal is just as important as the tasting experience of the food. Before we even take that first bite, we’ve already judged the meal in front of you. How that food looks makes an impression, even a promise, with the viewer. Pink salmon promises delight. Grey salmon promises disappointment.

Putting Pink Into Practice. So if your goal is to sell more farmed salmon, you have to convey that its pink hue isn’t detrimental and that it keeps the buyer from freaking out. Great. Those are fairly straightforward tasks, assuming you can get people to stop long enough to listen to what your brand has to say. This holds true of nearly any product – features, benefits, and fact are all necessary to make your brand’s case. But they hardly win hearts and minds. And that requires digging a bit deeper and connecting bigger cultural truths to what you make or do.

In the case of farmed salmon, one path may be to speak to the higher moral truth of climate change and consumption. Wild-caught salmon is commonly available but under current rates of spawn and catch, it is not sustainable. The ability to make an identical version of this nutrient increases the ability of the industry to sustainably grow without depleting naturally occurring, but limited, resources. Therefore your brand stands for something bigger than fish production, it stands for a healthy, sustainable future. Adding astaxanthin using the current methods, while not perfect, helps maintain and preserve the planet and wild fish stocks. Of course, there is a simple reality that in a polarized, digital age you will always be a target. Taking a position means taking on risk. But responding to criticism strengthens a brand’s relationship with its customer base. Some negative commentary is short-lived, some is continuous and reflects a specific world view. In either case, it requires having a plan in place to diffuse the situation.

And the clearer your brand’s cause, the easier it is for that plan to come together. The point is simple — dig deeper, whether you’re selling salmon or flea medicine. Uncovering cultural patterns of meaning leads to better branding, better campaigns, and better marketing.

The Changing Meaning of the Family Meal

Unknown.jpegEating meals as a family is a daily event so routine, so ordinary that it is taken for granted. But it is also a central part of social relationships and cultural rituals, as well as a symbolic means of coming together. Across cultures and time, food sharing is an almost universal medium for expressing connectedness. From the dawn of humanity, the meal embodies values of solidarity, hospitality, gratitude, sacrifice, and fellowship. The shared meal is an opportunity to talk, to create and strengthen bonds of attachment, and to share the doings of the day. It is a to teach and learn. The family meal is celebrated as a supremely important component of family life. But what do we really mean when we talk about the family meal? The phrase seems simple enough, but the idea of the “family meal” is convenient shorthand for an idea that is more imagined than real.

An image that most readily comes to mind is a happy nuclear family of mom, dad, and a couple of kids sitting around the dinner table enjoying the beautifully displayed outputs of a largely invisible kitchen production process. This is an image perpetuated, if not created, by mid-20th-century advertising that persists even as the meal landscape has changed. It is the cultural ideal, something to be aspired to and emulated. The family gathered around the table, be it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner, is the ultimate symbol of perfect family unity.

But a quick read of history clearly shows that this concept of the family meal is a fairly modern phenomenon. For example, in Victorian Britain, the children of wealthy families were more likely to eat in the nursery or kitchen, or to eat in communal dining rooms at boarding schools, than to sit at the family table. In low-income households, there might not even be a table to sit around. Indeed, the historical realities of the family meals align with a fairly brief period of time. And yet, it is as much a fixture in our shared cultural identity as anything we can imagine. And it isn’t surprising. With all the work involved, the provision of a family meal is a symbolic demonstration of the care of the meal provider. It may veer more toward love or toward duty, but it always shows commitment to the family group. By sharing meal-related tasks, from shopping to food preparation, table-laying and clearing-up, all family members participate in this exercise of responsible family solidarity.

There are, of course, many types of families and household relationships. What does this mean then for what can be considered a family meal? Does everyone in the family have to be present? Do they have to be eating the same foods? Do they have to be sitting around a table? Does the food have to be prepared in the home or simply plated there? How does the dynamic changed when relatives outside the nuclear family are present? Or friends?

Lack of time, work demands, busy social lives, scheduled activities, and increased opportunities for eating away from home are among the factors redefining the meaning of the family meal. Lunch has largely disappeared as a family meal, and breakfast may not be far behind. What does seem to hold true is that the majority of people still want and value family meals, however they define them. I a study conducted in the US and North America in 2016, three-quarters of people stated that they wanted to make more effort to sit down together for a family meal. At the same time, those same people stated they faced a multitude of barriers in putting this into practice. Families still eat together, though this is often at malls, in restaurants, or in cars on their way to the basketball practice. But to what extent do these constitute family meals? The common elements of food and family are still there, but what may be missing are some of the symbolic and culturally meaningful dimensions of the home-based family meal, some of the cultural learning opportunities, and the structure that family mealtimes can bring to the day.

What does this mean for marketing? In simplest terms, it means thinking about what happens through the entire meal cycle, not just what happens at the table. The changes in how we gather at the table suggests that while the motivational and diagnostic frames campaigns are likely to resonate with parents functionally, they do not align with parents’ experiences. Parents face more barriers to having the kinds of meals they want and have fewer ideas for overcoming them. As an example of one way to overcome the disconnect, promoting family meals should focus on innovative but relatable strategies for improving family meal frequency and quality.

Another is to focus on the idea of creation rather than consumption. Today, craft-based skills are namely the domains of skilled practitioners. What once had to be made for oneself is now available to purchase. What was once fixed or mended is now easily replaced with mass produced and inexpensive alternatives. We’ve seen the explosion of trends such as the maker movement in markets such as artisanal or slow-food cooking where at least if one isn’t quite ready for “doing handmade”, it’s easy to support the passion cooking and gain something one-of-a-kind. So why not in the family kitchen? It creates a connection to something tangible. It reinforces the underlying emotional currents and social intent of shared mealtime. I provides memories that return the family meal to its somewhat mythological intent – a place to slow down, reflect, and build.

Eating together, whatever and wherever that may be, helps to build bonds between family members. Perhaps instead of mourning the demise of the family meal, we can look for ways to reinvigorate our relationship with food.

 

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.