Brand name taste is an abstraction

A friend of mine is a restauranteur who by his own admission doesn’t know much about wine. Never the less his wine rep was bringing over a bottle of Chateau d’Yquem for some occasion. I asked my friend if he’d read up on Sauterne vintages, the better to appreciate it. He looked at me quizzically. I persisted, thinking something along the lines of Tom Wolfe’s Painted Word, that you had to know about the theory of abstract art to appreciate what you saw. I didn’t get far because my friend was attuned to the un-abstract measure of his customer’s palate. Did they taste a distinctive quality? That was enough. You don’t need a text to appreciate pre-abstract art. Epicure likewise is not abstract.

Many aspects of our lives have become experiences of abstract quality. We may not prefer a fashion, but are happy enough with it so long as we believe others like it. A designer label says what we want about us, regardless whether we have a say about it. Marketing goes a long way to produce our appreciation. When we use the product we feel ourselves in the commercial. For some beverages, I’m certain the commercial has become the product. We begin enjoying the Coke from the first cold beads of condensation on the can, through the Shtffk of cracking the pop tab, until it’s down our throat. Right then we all know Coke doesn’t satisfy our thirst, because we already want more. It satisfies our craving to inhabit the Coke world.

Sugar is not an acquired taste, but wanting to be a Pepper is. Breakfast cereal feeds a pathetic sweet tooth. Cheap beer and the new soft-liquors feed conditioned desires.

Not only is the processed food industry relying on its talent to taylor our appetite, it undermines our reliance on our own senses. If something is not advertised, can it be of value? Ice cream flavored of cookies ‘n cream isn’t good enough unless they are Oreo brand cookies. Toffee must be Heath Bars, peanut butter must be Reeses. Except for regional salsas or steak marinades, products fade from the supermarket shelves if nt cross branded with a national identity. This has become an easier feat for the big guys because they’ve conglomerated so many diverse products, from babies diapers to tobacco.

The brand name is now the critical ingredient which we all taste with our imagination, crafted by ceaseless ad campaigns. A product’s advertising is itself a stipend paid to the media companies to ensure a brand stays on the public palate. Remember Oh Henry? Somebody lapsed in their payment.

Now the powerhouse food corps are using the same manipulative method to plant doubt in the consumer’s mind about their own ability to judge taste. (I remember an subscription tag line for GQ magazine to this effect: You don’t know fashion, let GQ tell you.) How could what you think tastes good, have any bearing on what they tell you tastes good?

With health food the fearful conglomerates caution, how do you know it’s really organic? But isn’t that the same assumption I threw at my friend? It’s true with processed food, we can’t taste BGH or Mad Cow spinal matter, or protein additives necessarily. But other factors like refined sugars, fats, or chemical pesticides we can detect. In the produce department, it’s not just a matter of stickers that say “organic” or higher prices or more easily blemished fruit, it’s the taste. Organic produce tastes fuller, richer, more pleasing, more satisfying.

Our own natural sense of taste tells us whether we are enjoying it or not. No textbook, afficionado’s article, or 30 second commercial need tell us what we think of that apple. Or what we think of the non-stickered apple which tastes like the floor cleaner we thought they used in the supermarket. That isn’t the floor we were smelling, it was the apples. If it weren’t for the antiseptic packaging, the inert food content and the slick marketing directing our taste buds, we’d realize the whole supermarket smelled of Union Carbide and Monsanto.

1 thought on “Brand name taste is an abstraction

  1. A rose by any other name is probably marketing.
    Favorite line: “Remember O Henry? Somebody lapsed in their payment.” Delicious.

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