The Latest Food Marketing Trend: Fake Authenticity

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The National Pork Board's new slogan exemplifies the food industry's desire to convey virtue—no matter how dubious

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Pork, as you may have heard, is the other white meat no more. As of this month, when the National Pork Board rolled out a new $11-million advertising blitz, it is a reason to "Be Inspired." The commercials feature families cooking and celebrating, with the aim, according to spokeswoman Pamela Johnson, of giving a "proud, energetic, unapologetic voice to all the unique attributes" of pork. Exactly what the pig people mean by that is anyone's guess. And yet their squishy new slogan just might be the best possible response to what diners want now.

Today, companies have no choice but to try to keep pace with food evangelists spreading the vote-with-your-fork gospel.

The Pork Board's move follows a related tactic by industrial producers, who in this era of conscientious (even militant) know-your-food-ism have taken to assigning virtues to their products, no matter how dubious, that reflect the current obsession with all things wholesome and handmade. Haagen-Dazs has its Five line, which boasts that no pint contains more than five ingredients; this, when Haagen-Dazs' original vanilla, chocolate, and strawberry don't have more than five anyway. Tostitos, an easy target in a country where one in three children is overweight, now touts that its chips are made of nothing but "white corn, natural oil, and a dash"—120 milligrams per serving—"of salt." Even soda, that dark lord of food villains, has found a way to co-opt the all-that's-simple trend. PepsiCo recently added Pepsi and Mountain Dew Throwback to its permanent lineup. Both come in retro packaging—the Dew can is a re-release of a 1960s design—and boast "real sugar," not high fructose corn syrup, as ingredients. In test runs, the new offerings had boosted the company's market share, on an annualized basis, by $220 million.

Food marketers have always tried to tailor their pitches to the latest fad. (This is how, during the Atkins craze, the world was introduced to low-carb bread.) But today companies have no choice but to try to keep pace with food evangelists spreading the vote-with-your-fork gospel. According to an analysis by Hank Cardello, director of the Hudson Institute's obesity solutions initiative, 80 percent of consumers now believe their purchases are a way to send a message to corporations, and 44 percent have actually switched brands to drive change. "Ten percent would get their attention," says Cardello. "Forty-four percent tells them that something serious is going on."

Yet there are limits to how effective these efforts at fabricated authenticity can be. That sugar in your old-timey Mountain Dew will still make you fat, as those gruesome city New York City Health Department ads are eager to remind us, and the heritage labeling only validates consumer preferences for brands that genuinely qualify as homespun and small-batch. It gets even more problematic when your product is meat: At a time when vegetarianism is on the rise, particularly among young people, attempts to cater to informed consumers unavoidably, and awkwardly, lead to appetite-killing discussions of what happened before that pork chop ended up on your plate.

Of course, this assumes that everyone really does want to think about where their food came from and that dining choices are universally viewed as a statement of political values or a status symbol. The pork board seems to be betting that there's a significant chunk of America that doesn't view food that way, especially when it comes to meat. (Indeed, not knowing much may be a big reason they are able to continue eating it at all.) Pork's new slogan may seem a bland replacement. But when meat, white and otherwise, is tainted by negative connotations like never before, it also might be, in its way, kind of inspired.

Image: National Pork Board

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Jane Black, formerly a food writer at The Washington Post, is currently at work on a book about food culture and class in Huntington, West Virginia. Learn more at www.janeblack.net.

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