One Thing Considered: Why Is Panera Selling Us Dirty Lettuce?

The fast-casual bakery chain’s ad campaign, “Should Be,” navigates the thin line between food marketing and foodsplaining.

Panera Bread

This is the second installment of "One Thing Considered,” an occasional attempt by Conor Friedersdorf and Megan Garber to talk through cultural artifacts that tickled their brains. In this edition, the artifact at hand is a Panera Bread ad called “Should Be"—one of a series of spots the fast-casual bakery-cafe has put out this year. Here’s the commercial:

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Megan Garber: So I’ve been seeing these Panera ads for awhile now—print versions are posted on bus stops around my neighborhood—and I find them both weird and fascinating. I’m trying to figure out why, exactly … is it the moralism they suggest when it comes to food and eating? The idealized vision of the “American table” they present through their visuals? The vaguely William Carlos Williams-reminiscent style of the video ads’ voice-overs?

Wait, though, I’m getting ahead of myself. Here’s the text of one of those voice-overs:

Food should be good.
People should dance.
Strawberries should sing.
Good bread makes a sandwich;
Good soil makes a salad.  
Lettuce should be dirty; dressing, clean.
Sweet should never be fake.
Manners, never minded.
Debate should be healthy. Hatchets, buried.
Forks on the left, knives on the right. Hands should be used regardless.
Bellies should be rubbed; tables should be full.
And good food should be good for you.

We’re not saying these are the rules we should all live by;
But it’s a good place to start.
Panera: food as it should be.

Weird, right? Or maybe it’s not? Conor, what do you think? What do you make of an ad that, in the name of selling sandwiches and salads, invokes soil and sweetness and singing strawberries? Is it strange that one of Panera’s “rules”—not “rules to live by,” but a “good place to start”—is that manners should never be minded? Is it revealing that the word “should” shows up 12 times in a minute-long spot? What is Panera trying to accomplish with an ad that sells “food as it should be”?

Conor Friedersdorf: Megan, that ad is weird. Its images and tone are familiar. We’ve all seen ads with a similar aesthetic. And if “Should Be” were on in the background as I made dinner I might not notice anything amiss. But the words kill this spot.

Ad Week wrote about what they were trying to accomplish. More consumers are eschewing fast food, “choosing to eat better, even if it costs more, based on the promise that they’ll feel better and be happy.” If you try to get to a local farmer’s market, or prefer a burrito bowl––hold the dairy––to a burger and fries, maybe Panera can get you eating in their stores or carrying out their food for family dinner.

The ad immediately reminded me of “Thrive,” an ad campaign that Kaiser Permanente, the health insurance company, launched in 2004. Their market research that suggested “people want to be as happy and healthy as they can be at every stage of life.” So they decided that while their competitors “stood for health care,” they would try for a different brand association: “Kaiser would stand for health.”

Like Panera, Kaiser’s ads featured a narrator playfully riffing off warm, slice-of-life moments. Now watch the health insurer’s first “Thrive” ad and notice what’s different:

We stand for broccoli, Pilates, and dental floss.
We believe in the treadmill and its sibling the elliptical.
In SPF 30 we trust.
We believe in seat-belts and stopping HIV. And that fruit makes a wonderful dessert.
We're for laughter-as-medicine and penicillin.
All hail cold turkey, the gum, and the patch.
We are anti-addiction and pro antioxidant.
And we believe health isn't an industry, it’s a cause.
We are Kaiser Permanente, and we stand for health.
Live long and thrive.

The ad copy makes sense!

Broccoli, seat belts, and nicotine gum are very different, but all are in service of the clear conviction the ad expresses: “We are Kaiser Permanente, and we stand for health.”

What does Panera stand for? Its ad seems like it doesn’t want to be pinned down. It throws out a bunch of words and images, only to tell us, “We’re not saying these are the rules we should all live by.” And no wonder: some rules seem contradictory. “Forks on the left, knives on the right” suggests adherence to traditional manners. But “manners” should “never” be minded suggests the opposite ethic.

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.”

That reading, to be clear, doesn’t make me like the ad more; it might, though, make it slightly more legible. And it might be another reason, now that I think about it, that “Should Be” has stuck with me: Its internal contradictions, in their wacky way, ring true. There’s something wonderfully post-modern about singing strawberries and dirty-clean salads and the suggestion that “hands should be used regardless.” And there’s also something wonderfully revealing about a company detecting all the confusion and anxiety in the air out there and deciding to do the same thing that Kaiser did: offer not just insurance, but reassurance. If Kaiser “stands for health,” then Panera stands for “health.” And also, apparently, dancing and belly-rubbing.

Or: Maybe? What do you think?

Friedersdorf: You’re so right that it’s confusing out there for food consumers. The restaurant critics at the Tampa Bay Times, Laura Reiley, recently published an investigative article showing that dozens of restaurants in her city that bill themselves as “farm to table” were deceiving their customers about the provenance of meats, poultry, fishes, and even vegetables. “This is a story we are all being fed. A story about overalls, rich soil and John Deere tractors scattering broods of busy chickens. A story about healthy animals living happy lives, heirloom tomatoes hanging heavy and earnest artisans rolling wheels of cheese into aging caves nearby,” she wrote. “More often than not, those things are fairy tales.”

My friend Megan McArdle––Atlantic alum, economics writer, food connoisseur, and home chef extraordinaire––subsequently observed that while many perceive virtue in “eating local,” the reality is that few are willing to pay to do it. As she put it:

Food grown locally, on small-lot farms without modern chemical assistance, is really expensive. The complex modern food-supply chain that ensures restaurants and food processors can get the same consistent mix of staple ingredients year-round also relentlessly beats down the price of food, sourcing wherever supply is cheapest, redistributing temporary local abundance to a steady global diet of everyday low prices.

This is also not such a terrible way to eat; it is the foundation of much of our modern prosperity. But it is not local, artisanal, organic. It is global, industrial, indifferent. It has to be, both because organic inputs are much more expensive, and because trying to separate and track all the food so that restaurateurs can be sure of provenance and process would mean abandoning many of the efficiencies that  make the stuff so cheap.

As a chain aiming for a prices just north of fast food, one that must compete with Cosi and Starbucks and El Pollo Loco, Panera can’t even pretend to be locally sourced. But maybe they’re betting they can win over consumers who never imagined that they could afford “farm to table” or hot new foodie bistros … but still like feeling their food is not just healthy, but “good,” both morally and culinarily.

On a visit to a Panera Bread in Marina Del Rey, I sensed a desire to appeal to what we might call aspirational foodies. For $11.64 with tax, I had a half-sized Chopped Chicken Cobb Salad with Avocado & Dressing––the lettuce was thankfully clean––paired with a half Napa Almond Chicken Salad Sandwich. The food was better than I expected. But what struck me most, reading all the copy adorning wall posters and printed on “take one” fliers, was that few if any food purveyors at that price point go so far in treating customers like members of a creative class.

“Pairing flavors for the way they get along together,” one brochure stated, “is every bit as exciting as playing matchmaker … and when it all works out and you’re sitting there at the wedding telling everyone how you just knew they were meant to be? Finding the perfect Panera pairing feels just as satisfying.” To illustrate a “perfect Panera pairing,” the copy suggests a Steak & Arugula Sandwich with Broccoli Cheddar soup. “At first glance this pair may seem like an overly indulgent choice,” the text says, but I can have a half-serving of both, consume less than 500 calories, and revel in the fact that “the bright flavors found in the sandwich––the tang of the sourdough and the vibrant pickled onions––give it a lightness that works to offset the sharp cheddar and thick, velvety texture of this heavier soup.”

This oversells all the items, but no one at McDonalds is trying so hard to sell anything. And even with all the hyperbole, when I reflect on the menus at pricier L.A. dining options, Panera can make a credible claim to relative forthrightness and transparency, at least if they truly abide by their published list of “no no ingredients,” their calorie counts, and their ingredient lists, which are all posted ubiquitously.

For me, living in a city full of cheap, delicious food from nearly every country on earth, Panera remains a tough sell. But If I weren’t living in the world’s best food city? It might well be the best healthy food option near its price point. I might eat there twice a week. It would be easy to be health-conscious while doing so. I’d be left with just one complaint: for a place that calls itself Panera Bread, shouldn’t the bread sing?

Mine was just meh.

Garber: Conor, no! I've been with you until now, but you are sorely mistaken: Panera’s bread is awesome. At least, okay, the sourdough they use to make their bread bowls—my favorite menu item, apologies to the chain’s caesar salad and its Power Kale—is awesome. It’s flaky and crispy and its scooped-out innards are just the right consistency for soaking up broccoli cheddar soup. I demand a correction.

Beyond that, though, I’m glad you pointed out the food that is, after all, the upshot of the “Should Be” spot. The ad may be weird, but it sells something that is probably a net good, not just for Panera’s customers, but for the food system it influences as it participates in it: food that is fast, but that is not technically “fast food.”

In many places, you're right, that food can be really—outrageously—hard to find. I recently spent a few days with my family in suburban/fairly rural Ohio, and guess where we ended up eating literally twice in one day? Yep, the land of the dancing berries. The only other eating-out choices where we were staying, beyond the traditional sit-down restaurants, were pretty much all of the “local” fast food chains. And as close as Arby’s is to my heart (and only partially because of the cholesterol in a Beef ‘n Cheddar), not everyone in the family will want to eat there.

So Panera, when we didn't have time for a long, sit-down meal, was the compromise choice. It had something for everyone: For one meal my grandmother got a grilled cheese, my aunt got a salad, my mom got a “broth bowl” (basically an Asian-style soup), and I got a salad-and-soup combo. We each got something we were happy with, if not super-excited about—whereas if we’d ended up at Arby’s, I'd have been thrilled, but others would’ve been disappointed (and, possibly, confused).

Which … makes me think, weirdly, of Clay Christensen, the Harvard professor who first defined the “disruptive innovation” that has become so popular in the business world. He has another theory: the jobs-to-be-done approach, aka “milkshake marketing.” Christensen, several years ago, was studying a fast-food chain that wanted to improve its milkshake sales; his analysis suggested that, oddly, 40 percent of the chain’s milkshakes were sold first thing in the morning—to commuters. People weren’t ordering the shakes, Christensen realized after talking with them, for the reasons you’d think: as sweet treats, desserts, snacks, etc. They were buying them because they wanted a fast and portable breakfast they could have in the car, one that would keep their hands clean, one that wouldn’t get crumbs all over their work clothes. The milkshake was simply the best option available for accomplishing that job.

Panera’s food, too, is doing a job for the chain’s customers. But it’s not primarily commuters who are hiring it; it is instead (I’d wager, based on my time in Panera and on its marketing efforts) families. People who come to a meal with varied palates and nutritional needs—people like my family, and like so many others.

So that’s another way that Panera’s maybe-awkward marketing makes sense: The chain is selling itself not just to people, but to groups who, because of cost and geographic availability and the fusion of the two, don’t have another way to get food that is fast and fresh and otherwise as it should be. Panera’s “clean pairings” menu and its “dirty lettuce” and its “good bread” are all doing a job, which is to provide meals that families—parents, in particular—can feel good about, from a cost and a speed and a health and a general “keep everyone happy” perspective.

I grew up in California—where some of the family members visiting Ohio with me still live—and there’s a very good chance the lettuce I had in the salad I ate with them was from California, too. It’s weird to think that the people I was lunching with in that Panera in Ohio made roughly the same journey as the leaves in our bowls. But at least we got some salad, you know? (And the lettuce was, for the record, as clean as you’d want it to be.)