Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Lou Reed just died, and I am thinking about an old mayonnaise commercial (Overthinking Stuff)

I never read "The Scarlet Letter," which I think puts me into a distinct minority in America, as I assume that almost every high schooler ever gets assigned to read the book.

But even with that, I am familiar enough with the storyline to understand the storyline in that commercial above, and what it means.  What I don't get is this:

Who hates Miracle Whip?

And hates it so much that there is a commercial built around the idea that they hate it so much?

And under what circumstances is it a good advertising move to say "Man, people REALLY REALLY hate this product, so, you know, give it a try." ?

THAT is what I think everytime I see this commercial, or the companion one where a bunch of people storm through the woods to burn Miracle Whip at the stake or something:

Those two ads are part of a $30,000,000 campaign that began in 2012, a continuation of a 2011 Miracle Whip ad blitz that featured celebrities (?) like "Pauly D" saying how they hate Miracle Whip so much that if a girlfriend of theirs liked it they would break up with her.

(Which sounds like a great reason to develop a taste for Miracle Whip, cultivating a desire for it so that one won't inadvertently end up dating someone from Jersey Shore.)

Miracle Whip is mayonnaise, and the fact that a company -- just one company of the 76 or so companies that make mayo in the United States alone -- can spend $30,000,000 to convince you that it's particular blend of oil, egg yolk, vinegar and/or lemon juice is the one to buy says a lot more about America than I like to think about, especially this early (6:39 a.m.) in the morning, because, remember, advertising money is profits that a company uses to generate more profits, which, put another way, means this: Last year, Americans spent at least $30,000,000 on Miracle Whip alone.  

This, from a country that thinks Armageddon was caused by requiring people to buy health insurance with government subsidies.

(In an ironic twist on that last sentence, if you google "How much money is spent on mayo in a year" you'll get a link to health savings account information at the Mayo clinic" as your first result.)

The actual numbers are worse, or better, depending on whether you make your living selling mayonnaise or simply despair that this country will ever get to a point where people don't have to be in debt for a year simply to take their family to Disney World (as Rusty Carl recently pointed out is what happens to 80% of America, presumably the 80% that regularly eats mayonnaise): according to a BusinessWeek article, one brand of mayonnaise alone sells $401,000,000 worth of egg yolks-in-a-jar per year. 

One brand. Remember, there are 76 different companies churning (probably literally) mayo out for your consumption.

That same article said that mayo is the number one condiment in the US, nearly doubling the sales of number two, salsa.

which then comes back to the question, who hates mayo so much that you could build an ad campaign around it?

I, personally, hate the idea of reading The Scarlet Letter, and the idea of "Pauly D", for that matter, more than I hate mayo, which I actually rather like, and which everyone actually rather likes, based on the fact that it's the number one selling condiment.  (A different kind of mayo, in fact, is number 4, so two of the top four, and $700,000,000 per year worth of buying power, are, in America, devoted to mayo.)

Among football teams, especially, there is often a motivational tactic known as Nobody believes in us: think of the New York Giants the year they beat the as-yet-undefeated New England Patriots* in the Super Bowl.  This is a phenomenon used often enough that sports writers comment on it when it crops up, especially to note that some teams seems to holler nobody believes in us when it's pretty clear that everybody believes in them.

That device, in turn, is akin to a straw man -- a fake target set up for the sole purpose of knocking it down, a rhetorical device in a debate.  If you, for example, wanted to make sure that a country which could spend $600,000,000+ on sandwich spread -- and $30,000,000 just to tell you which kind of sandwich spread to buy -- might also want to do something crazy, like ensure that people are not impoverished by treatable illnesses, you might argue that in a wealthy country like that, we can easily afford to spread the cost of health care around among people so that everyone gets some.  

Your opponent, though, might scare up images of 'death panels' and 'privacy violations' that need to be proven not to exist before people will dare even discuss how a society can guarantee a basic liberty for all its citizens.  That is a 'straw man,' and in this context, the idea that people don't like Miracle Whip serves as a straw man, of sorts.

Except that the people who make Miracle Whip seem to also be the people who don't like Miracle Whip.  Exhibit 1 in the Mayo Self-Loathing trial is that "Miracle Whip" refuses to call itself "mayonnaise."  Partly, that's because it isn't really mayonnaise, exactly, although what is mayonnaise, exactly, is open to some debate.

Nobody is really sure where "mayonnaise" comes from or what ingredients, exactly, make something "mayonnaise."  Wikipedia claims alternately that the salad dressing -- which is technically what mayo is, although I have never seen anyone put it on a salad-- comes from France, Spain, and London, the latter being a claim that a custard-making accident resulted in mayonnaise, which, in terms of accidental discoveries that benefit humanity, ranks pretty far below penicillin.

The best version of the story of where the name "mayonnaise" comes from is that it traces back to the Duke of Mayenne, who took the time to eat some chicken with cold sauce before losing the Battle of Arques in the "French Wars Of Religion."  Which might, in retrospect, be a very good reason to not just give Miracle Whip a try, because doing so might result in losing the siege of a strategic port, and France will win the religion wars and we'll all be praying in French.  Sacre bleu, mon dieu!  (Point of order: the notion that the French swear by saying Sacre bleu originates from Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot, who was a Belgian.)  

The basic ingredients of mayo are eggs, oil, and vinegar; after that, you can dress up the salad dressing any way you want, but you might be crossing some lines: add mustard, for example, and you've left Mayonnaise City and entered Remoulade-ville.  The put remoulade on hot dogs in Iceland, and now you know that.  (Add butter instead of mustard and you've got Hollandaise sauce.)

Mayo became commercially available in the US in 1907, and was so successful that some companies which originally focused on sandwiches eventually went to just selling the mayo they used to dress them up -- that's Duke's, from the southeast US -- but it would be 26 years before Kraft came up with the "less expensive" version of mayo, "Miracle Whip."  Kraft did this by using a specialized machine to whip together traditional mayo and something it called "boiled dressing."  The name comes from the device: the machine was known as the "Miracle Whip" because of the way it was supposed to perfectly blend the ingredients.  The bigger miracle may be that people don't realize it contains high fructose corn syrup and other artificial sweeteners, artificial sweeteners being the way food manufacturers get you to like their food so much you can't stop eating it.

In February, in this New York Times Magazine article, it was pointed out that one of the most common ingredients in spaghetti sauce is sugar:

 A mere half-cup of Prego Traditional, for instance, has the equivalent of more than two teaspoons of sugar, as much as two-plus Oreo cookies. It also delivers one-third of the sodium recommended for a majority of American adults for an entire day. In making these sauces, Campbell supplied the ingredients, including the salt, sugar and, for some versions, fat, while Moskowitz supplied the optimization. “More is not necessarily better,” Moskowitz wrote in his own account of the Prego project. “As the sensory intensity (say, of sweetness) increases, consumers first say that they like the product more, but eventually, with a middle level of sweetness, consumers like the product the most (this is their optimum, or ‘bliss,’ point).”

Americans can be ignorant, but in America, ignorance is no longer bliss: sugared tomato sauce is.  (Sales of pasta sauces have doubled since the 1970s, and annually the industry rakes in $1,200,000,000 from people who, like me, cannot stand the thought of bare noodles.  Mayo, too, is meant to give pasta some modesty: most of the actual 'salads' for which it is dressing are things like pasta and fruit salads.)

(If you are keeping track, that's nearly $2,000,000,000 annually we Americans spend on just two kinds of condiments.)

Miracle Whip is also Miracle Whip because, legally speaking, it isn't mayonnaise at all: while experts disagree on what makes a mayo the real thing, the FDA says that you have to have at least 65% vegetable oil, and Miracle Whip doesn't measure up, so it can't say it's mayonnaise.  (Also, Miracle Whip was originally a low-cost alternative. Now it's about the same price as all other mayonnaises.)

That "boiled dressing" that Miracle Whip is emulsified with? It's a remoulade, according to most recipes that explain how to cook the Southern Dish.  Which means that to make Miracle Whip, you take mayonnaise and mix it with a mayonnaise-based dressing.  If you then use your Miracle Whip to make egg salad, as I do, and you then add mustard to that egg salad, as I do, you have created the sandwich equivalent of the Ouroborous.

As for the haters, while there's no doubt that some people hate Miracle Whip, Kraft loved the idea of getting people to hate it: the ad campaign was said to have generated over 98,000,000 page views when it first debuted in 2011.  

And the dressing may really be a miracle:  the spread is also used for polishing brass (it's the vinegar that does it) and is said to be helpful on burns and to remove dead skin from feet if you soak them in a tub of water and Miracle Whip mixed.  (Now try to ignore that notion when you make your next sandwich.)

The spread is an emulsion.  So is milk. Technically, an emulsion is a form of colloid that is always a liquid -- so Miracle Whip is a liquid, but just barely.  Soap uses the principles behind mayonnaise to get dirt out of your clothing.  

Despite its provenance as a benefactor for penny-pinching households -- as a cheap spread or cheaper way to polish the boss' brass-- Miracle Whip, and mayo in general, has a long history of siding with the 1%. Remember "hollandaise sauce," from above?  It's used in Eggs Benedict, a dish named for a hungover Wall Street broker who came up with it at the Waldorf hotel one morning in 1894.   

39 years later, when Kraft wanted to sell eggs to the masses for less, it bought the recipe for "Miracle Whip" from Max Crossett, paying him $300 for it.  Adjusted for inflation, Kraft would have had to pay $5,218 if Max had only just come up with his idea this year.  

The company behind the "Scarlet Letter/Keep An Open Mouth" ad campaign is McGarryBowen, an agency which has only existed since 2002 but which now brings in about $176,000,000 per year in revenues.  They've also created ads for Sears and Burger King (among others).  The idea behind the "Scarlet Letter" ads, they've said, was to make Miracle Whip seem not just "hip" (an earlier, "extreme" series of ads for Miracle Whip in 2009 drew derision [and free publicity] from Stephen Colbert) but sinful and decadent.

It's an interesting idea: pair up a generic-y mixture of eggs and vinegar with required reading, in order to appeal to the kids: a double-negative that maybe is intended to boomerang around and make them both cool again?  But it's not the first time Nathaniel Hawthorne's work has been co-opted by pop culture.  It's been mentioned (or rewritten) in numerous books and songs, including a reference from Metallica:

although they only refer to being branded with the "mark of sin."

Six operas have been made from the story, and it has been used as an easy reference by television shows and books, including a character adopting "Hester Prynne" as a pseudonym on Twin Peaks, at which point the brothel owner tells the character "I read The Scarlet Letter in high school, too, honey."

Like Miracle Whip, the book itself ended up being more beneficial to everyone who didn't create it:  Hawthorne was surprised by its success, but only made about $1,500 from the book itself.  That's $40,785 in today's money.

As for the letter itself? While it may seem harsh to force an adulterer to wear a letter on her chest, consider that the letter was created as alternative punishment: originally, the sentence for cheating was death, or at least a severe whipping: one of Nathaniel Hawthorne's ancestors was a magistrate who had an adulterer publicly flogged.  Part of Hawthorne's motivation in writing The Scarlet Letter, scholars have said, was to help convince people that adultery was a private, rather than a public matter.

So now, today, I am thinking about a commercial that makes light of a punishment imposed by a society that felt so strongly about private matters that it would put people to death if they did not adhere to the popular morality.  That commercial used (no doubt, without compensating his heirs) a story written by a man who made very little off a book that 160+ years later is a staple of high school English courses.  It advertises a product bought for a pittance from a small restauranteur, a product for which we voluntarily give nearly $1,000,000,000 annually just to keep our sandwiches from being bland.

Lou Reed thought about this kind of stuff, too.  Here is his song, Strawman:

In it, he sings:

We who have so much to you who have so little
to you who don't have anything at all
We who have so much more than any one man does need
and you who don't have anything at all, ah
Does anybody need another million dollar movie
does anybody need another million dollar star
Does anybody need to be told over and over
spitting in the wind comes back at you twice as hard

Strawman, going straight to the devil
strawman, going straight to hell
Strawman, going straight to the devil

strawman, yes

Does anyone really need a billion dollar rocket
does anyone need a 60,000 dollars car
Does anyone need another president
or the sins of Swaggart parts 6, 7, 8 and 9, ah
Does anyone need yet another politician
caught with his pants down and money sticking in his hole
Does anyone need another racist preacher
spittin' in the wind can only do you harm, ooohhh


Does anyone need another faulty shuttle
blasting off to the moon, Venus or Mars
Does anybody need another self-righteous rock singer
whose nose he says has led him straight to God
Does anyone need yet another blank skyscraper
if you're like me I'm sure a minor miracle will do
A flaming sword or maybe a gold ark floating up the Hudson
when you spit in the wind it comes right back at you


I differ with Lou a little: I like the space program just fine.  But I'd say we don't necessarily need another reason to pick one of 76 different kinds of mayonnaise over the other.

Lou didn't, so far as I could tell, write any songs about mayo.  But he did write one about egg cream, so, close enough:

Lou's own songs get featured in commercials, too, like Perfect Day, which is used to advertise the Playstation 4:

Which some people say is about heroin, while others contend it talks about perfect, romantic love.  It's doubtful, no matter what you think, that he was talking about video gaming.


A quick word about Shadow Spinner, a novel that has been serialized by incredible author Andrew Leon:  this book, about a young boy who learns that he can manipulate shadows and has a connection to otherwordly beings, is a phenomenal read that calls to mind both Stephen King and Steven Spielberg.  While you can already buy the entire hardcopy book, Andrew is releasing e-versions in segments, and part two just went live on Amazon.

You can, and SHOULD, buy this book, immediately: it's incredible and amazingly fun to read.  PLUS, if you get the e-version, you'll get a bonus story from me: Augurs of Distant Shadow, which reinvents vampires as new gods who master scientific principles of energy manipulation.



Rusty Webb said...

Oh Geez - this is why I don't stop by more often. See, I have too many things in my head, and I can't possibly get them all out in a mere comment. This needs to be a real essay.

Where to start?

Okay, first. You do not, ever, and I mean, EVER, mention miracle whip in my house. My wife will got into a fit of rage unlike anything I have witnessed in my life. Once, just after we were married, I went to the story to pick up some mayonnaise. I came home with Miracle Whip.

I left again 10 minutes later with instructions to come back with proper mayonnaise, or don't come back at all.

Kraft, it seems, its hip to all this, and now puts, "Real Mayonnaise" right there on the stuff that is "real." When I came home the second time, I showed her the side of the jar, and I got a reluctant nod of approval.

I also noted she was holding a butcher knife at the time. I think she was ready to use it on me. Yes, some people hate Miracle Whip, my wife hates it as much as any person has ever hated a thing. Ever.

So, I am talking to the wife's brother a week or two ago, and someone mentions needing mayonnaise. He, before anyone can say anything else, gets red faced and starts howling at how Miracle Whip is one of the most awful things to happen to the world.

And then I realized it, Miracle Whip did something to these people when they were kids. I don't know if they had a Soylent Green moment when touring the Kraft factory or something, or what. But it's a passionate hatred.

I could see people getting injured over this. Or worse.

Damn, I forgot what else I was going to say. I'm shaking over this. Horrible memories were brought up. I've got to swallow all that so I can get back to facing the world again.

Briane P said...

I've had both mayo and Miracle Whip and I don't think I can tell the difference.

I'm amazed when people feel so passionately about such innocuous stuff. I mean, come on! It's not like this is something superimportant, like the ending to Battlestar Galactica or something!

Pat Dilloway said...

Like you I don't really know what the difference between Miracle Whip and "real" mayo is. Though it's funny Kraft makes both and charges nearly the same price for them.

I thought of you the other day when I saw an article saying people will spend something like $300 million on pet costumes this year. And yet those same people will lament having to pay for health insurance that could save their lives. It's crazy.

Briane P said...

Well, a life without a costumed pet is a life not worth living. Isn't that what Jesus said?

Andrew Leon said...

The Scarlet Letter was the very first book I was assigned to read that I just didn't. I tried to, but it was horrible. That was my junior year of high school. In college, I decided to try Hawthorne again and tried The House of Seven Gables, but I couldn't do that one either. It was horrible stuff.

When I was a kid, I wouldn't eat regular mayo, only Miracle Whip. I could tell the difference. Even when it was in stuff. Sometimes, my mother would try to trick me and use regular mayo thinking that if I didn't know then I wouldn't care, but I would never eat the stuff made with regular mayo. I'm not sure when I quit being that way, but I do know it's probably been more than 20 years since I've used Miracle Whip.

Just to say it, I do use mayo on my salads. Not all by itself, but I make my own salad dressings (because there's nothing you can buy that isn't full of sugar), and they all have mayo at their base.

Margo Dill said...

Now I'm overthinking the amount of sugar in spaghetti sauce, too. I come from a Miracle Whip family. My husband is pure mayo. We have both in our fridge, and somehow they manage to co-exist.

Liz A. said...

Who hates Miracle Whip? Me. And mayo too. And mustard. And pepper...

I pretty much hate everything most people consume all the time. Try me.

I'm a blast a dinner parties. (I eat before I go.)

Briane P said...

Liz: you hate food, I hate people. We're like a superhero team!

Margo: yours is a love story for the ages. Seriously, though, I bet Kraft would out you guys in a commercial.

Briane P said...

Andrew: you know my feelings on required reading: it mostly blows.

And do you mean you put it on SALAD salad, with lettuce and tomatoes etc? It seems weird but I guess no weirder than Ranch.

Andrew Leon said...

Ranch is naaasty.

And, yes, actual salad.