Tinted Lenses

How bias distorts perception and shapes social interaction.

This Post is So Mayo

The brand appeal of anti-conformity.

After you've studied the science of influence for a few years, it becomes very difficult to view commericals with an unjaundiced eye. As such, modern technology is a blessing to my marriage; with it, my wife can pause or quickly skip past the commercial breaks of our favorite programs and thus not have to listen to my extensive deconstructions of the latest ad campaigns.

But sometimes my wife isn't so quick with the remote, and a few commercials penetrate the quiet of the living room. The latest to catch my eye is the new campaign for Kraft's Miracle Whip. Against a background of driving beats, fuzzy guitar, and comely, pouty-lipped youth -- at the beach, on an urban rooftop, in a modern kitchen -- a flat, nasal voice warns us:

"Don't go unnoticed. Don't blend in. Don't be ordinary, boring, or bland. In other words, ‘don't be so mayo'. We are our own unique one-of-a-kind flavor." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uUUdNBFvSWI)

"We will not be quiet. We will not try to blend in. Disappear in the background. Play second fiddle. When we're in a sandwich, a salad, a panini [sic], or a crostini [sic], you'll know it. We're not like the others; we won't ever try to be. We are our own mixed-up blend of one-of-a-kind spices. We are Miracle Whip, and we will not tone it down." (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_70xGUxznYY)

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

[Panini and crostini are, respectively, grilled and open-faced Italian sandwiches. Trendy as those offerings may be in today's restaurants, that claim can thus be reduced to "a sandwich or a salad".]

We have all seen it in the grocery store or in a friend's refrigerator...  But what the heck is Miracle Whip, anyway? Well, it's a salad dressing or a sandwich spread, or both, depending on who you ask. Despite their protests to the contrary, my research suggests that it's simply mayonnaise (i.e., plant oils, salt, vinegar, and egg yolks) mixed with high-fructose corn syrup, more sugar, preservatives, and some common spices (e.g., dry mustard, garlic, paprika, cayenne pepper). Its origin is debatable, but the official story is that it was developed during the Great Depression as a cheaper alternative to mayonnaise. So it's not a big surprise that Kraft is redoubling its marketing efforts during the current economic downturn. When the going gets tough, the tough bring bag lunches.

So what should we make of the latest ad campaign for this venerable Ersatzmajonäse?

Well, I'm not sure about you, but "ability to blend" is high on my list of desirable attributes for edible spreads. Consider a potluck dinner: chunks of green apple and red onion in your potato salad could be memorable and welcome additions. Chunks of white emulsified glop would be memorable, yes, but you'd probably not be invited to the next party.

But of course, as many of us know first-hand, Miracle Whip blends in just fine with a variety of foods. That pegs this as a naked attempt to sell Miracle Whip as the choice for hungry iconoclasts.  I am currently pushing 30, and thus sit squarely in the "old" half of this ad's target age demographic (18-34). But with age comes experience: in the mid-1990s, the teenaged version of yours truly was bombarded with the long-running "Obey Your Thirst" campaign for the lemon-lime soft drink Sprite. With a dose of cheerful cynicism, these ads warned youth not to be duped by the traditional conventions of soda advertisements. In commercials such as the famous "Jooky" spot (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bsys9hYFewc), Sprite cautioned against believing in the self-transformative powers of product consumption ("Image Is Nothing"), and sold the pleasures of product consumption for its own sake ("Thirst Is Everything").

Never mind that selling an anti-corporate, anti-conformist product image is still selling an image. Never mind that Sprite returned to traditional appeals (e.g., using LeBron James as a spokesman) soon after their market share begain to decline. Never mind that Sprite is a Coca-Cola brand and thus the freedom to choose Sprite over Coke is essentially the freedom to throw your money into one of two piles, to be collected by the same company. Buy Sprite, and show that you're a unique individual; just like those tens of millions of other individual Sprite drinkers!

I'm sure that Kraft Foods would love nothing more than for "don't be so mayo" to become a part of current English slang, to perhaps replace "vanilla" as the go-to food referent for boredom and unsexiness. There is a tang of desperation in their current cross-promotions, from the "Miracle Whip Roller Roaster" sandwiches sold last summer at Six Flags Theme Parks to their Zingr web-commenting app for Facebook and Twitter. They are even soliciting new "Zinglish" slang submissions, i.e., getting young consumers to do the tin-eared Kraft marketing division's work for them.

Hey, Kraft, here's one for free... Miracle Hip (n.) -- fleeting sensations of promised social worth that one experiences after consuming your products.

Soda and sandwich spread are not lifestyle solutions. Fight back. Change the channel. Delete the Facebook app. Vote with your dollars.  Make the advertisers tone it down.

If you're a younger person, please don't refer to someone as "mayo", even if you're trying to be ironic. If you're an older person, please don't do it either, even if you're trying to relate to youth. If you're a parent, please don't be fooled that Miracle Whip will somehow help you bridge a communication gap to your sullen teenager.


And if you're really feeling adventurous, why not try blending up some homemade mayonnaise? (http://homecooking.about.com/od/condimentrecipes/r/blcon63.htm)

Steve Livingston is a social psychologist based in Toronto.

more...

Subscribe to Tinted Lenses

Current Issue

Just Say It

When and how should we open up to loved ones?