Monday, May 23, 2011

Anthropomorphic Food Sabotages Itself

My mom always says, “I won’t eat anything with a face.” While she’s referring to food that still has the face attached, this is part of the guilt-inducing aspect of meat-eating that causes lots of people to go veggie. The idea that the food you’re currently eating was at one time sentient and capable of higher thinking, self-awareness, reminiscence, and even dreams, is too much for some people to take.

This doesn’t make you a bad person for eating meat, but if you do, you fit into one of three categories:
  1. You enjoy the thought of being the more successful carnivore.
  2. You’re neutral on the subject and don’t care. It’s just the way things are.
  3. You try not to think about it too hard because bacon is just so damn good.
The consciousness of animals prior to consumption is a major hurdle that the meat industry must clear to keep up their profits, since it’s a pretty easy way to lose customers. If their product never had a face, they’d probably sell a lot more of it.

This is why it baffles me when a food company chooses a marketing campaign in which they anthropomorphize their product. Taking a product that has no ability to think and giving it human qualities may increase the humor in the advertisement and therefore its effectiveness, but it also willingly adds this extra burden to the process. Once you’ve seen the product exhibit its human-like characteristics, you’ve got to fit into one of the three categories shown above, or you discontinue use of the product altogether.

Foremost in this category is the branding used for M&Ms for quite some time now. In nearly all commercials for the chocolate candies, a regular M&M is paired up with a peanut-filled M&M for Laurel-and-Hardy-style hijinks. In some of these advertisements there are even direct references to the duo being consumed, leading to sheer terror on the faces of the characters. This commercial features a representative of each of the four main types of M&Ms being produced:

These commercials even go so far as to portray disturbing and reluctant experiments performed on the sentient candies—purely for the pleasure of consuming them. This commercial suggests an uncomfortable situation for everyone involved:

But it gets worse. McDonald’s used to be one of the worst offenders with an entire cast of disturbing food/human mutants including Mayor McCheese and the Fry Guys, and they’ve since retired their entire cast, save for the beef-loving clown. However, the most disturbing commercials in the restaurant’s history involved the imagery of Chicken McNuggets eagerly jumping into barbecue sauce—which, as we all know, is the last step before being torn to shreds by dutiful incisors. This commercial specifically drives home the point, as Ronald lovingly recounts the short life of the McNugget bunch and alludes to their doom, all the while patronizing the little victims’ cheerful mood:

This type of marketing may induce a bit of guilt, but it is at the same time intended to be humorous and entertaining. Likely the humor wins out over the guilt, and product sales increase as a result, but when you start to add cannibalism to the conversation, things start to get a bit dicey. I’m referring specifically to the use of pigs on barbecue restaurant signs.

Sure, pigs will eat anything, but this one is a serious traitor who just so happens to be selling out his brethren for consumption by humans. I’d actually feel better about this entire situation if they used a dead cartoon pig with Xs in its eyes rather than the curiously confident pork server carrying a tray of dead pig flesh. But hey, most barbecue customers probably fit into category 1 or 3 anyway.

But the icing on the cake—scratch that; the mouth crammed full of ground beef is the Hot Pockets Sideshots commercials which feature a trio of brothers describing how delicious they taste just before one of them is whisked away for execution. The remaining pair, who were so confident in their flavor just moments before, stand trembling, paralyzed with fear and fully aware of their ultimate demise:

There are two main things about this marketing campaign that ensure that I will never, ever eat this product. The first thing is the aforementioned ball-gag-o-beef shoved into each mouth, which looks like the little guys are vomiting their internal organs. The second is the anthropomorphic fear attributed to the characters. Rather than the M&Ms, who treat their consumption with as much finality as a shotgun blast to the face in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or the Chicken McNuggets who eagerly dive into barbecue sauce as if being eaten is their only joy in life, the Sideshots clearly don’t want to be food. Their horrified expressions in the end seal the deal.

So why give human qualities to products? It’s entertaining. The ultimate purpose is to sell the product, and boring marketing schemes rarely work, so generating interest either by comedic situations or even controversy generally works well. Awareness, more than anything, is important; the more people that know about your product, the more potential customers you have. Just don’t expect me to eat your anthropomorphized food any time soon.

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