Others are unclear. “Good bread makes a sandwich.” Does that mean healthy bread? Tasty bread? “Debates should be healthy.” What does that have to do with Panera? “Strawberries should sing.” What does that even mean? And the worst line: “Lettuce should be dirty; dressing, clean.” The last thing I want on a salad or sandwich is dirty lettuce! Lettuce should be crisp, nutrient-rich, and triple-washed.
My reaction may be tied to being a writer. Watching big budget Hollywood movies, music videos, or ads like this one, it’s often evident that huge amounts of money were paid to highly talented visual and auditory talent who executed highly professional set design, lighting, film editing, voiceover work, etc. But the high standards were abandoned when it came to the writing. In a half hour, you and I could write copy ten times better than what Panera broadcast. Did they make a big mistake? Or are TV ads a visual medium where substance doesn’t matter?
Garber: Conor, thank you, and bless you, for highlighting precisely why this ad has troubled me, and stuck with me, for lo these many months. It makes no sense! And: It purposely, aggressively, but also totally nonchalantly makes no sense!
It’s not just that strawberries don’t sing; it’s that “Should Be” seems to be trying to let Panera have things both ways, to frame itself at once as proper and also insouciant, as casual and also messy, as principled but also not a jerk about it. I’d agree that part of what’s likely happening involves the writing getting short shrift—the ad equivalent of screenwriters getting no love or credit, of When Harry Met Sally being “a Rob Reiner movie” when it owes so much of its charm to Nora Ephron’s screenplay.
But perhaps another thing is going on, too: Maybe “Should Be” is tapping, intentionally or not, into a moment of supreme confusion when it comes to what food, yes, “should be.”
Food is such an intimate thing—culturally, nutritionally, even spiritually. And it’s also, in its way, such a universal thing. And yet, the world moving at the speed it does, it can be challenging to do that simplest of things: be a consumer, in every sense, of food.
There’s so much that’s whiplash-y when it comes to the various “shoulds” of eating. Health-wise, is fat good, or bad? Carbs? Coffee? Wine? Is Paleo legitimate? Will red meat kill us or make us stronger? Is Bulletproof coffee a fad, or a buttery existential truth? And on and on, with things that are conventional wisdom about “healthy eating” one year totally reversing themselves the next. (Hi, margarine, I am looking at you.)
And then! Same goes for the moral “shoulds” of eating. Is almond milk terrible for the environment? What kind of fish is “sustainable”? (What does it actually mean for something to be “sustainable”? ) What’s up with GMOs?
It’s all a little overwhelming and frustrating and, occasionally, scary. These are basic questions about our bodies, our lives, and our planet. And we are, it often seems, unsure of the answers. I think a cumulative effect of it all is this widespread confusion among people who want to be good, and who want to be responsible, and who also would like to just sit down and have a damn sandwich without having to do a massive cost-benefit analysis about the whole thing. And maybe that’s what Panera is getting at, and selling: food as it should be, not as an edict, but as a reassurance. “We figured it out, so you don’t have to.” “Our food will not be revealed to be toxic, to you or to the environment.” “There, there, everything’s going to be okay. Here, have some Chicken Orzo soup and a Power Kale Caesar Salad.”