so, let’s call this a 3-episode arc.
For the next couple of weeks, I’m going to publish sections of a paper that reader Shannon recently sent me, on the subject of domesticity, in response to a post I wrote about women’s unpaid domestic labour. Her paper is VERY interesting, and I think there’s lots there to chat about. So, thanks so much to Shannon, my guest blogger for the next couple of weeks!!! And give Shannon a nice welcome and lots of discussion, please!
Nobody Likes a Blatant Simulacrum: Betty Crocker as a Marketing Technique
A young woman stands tall on the crest of a hill, flanked by two small children desperately clutching her hands. Her simple dress flutters in the chilly breeze as she stares resolutely into the distance, contemplating the dangers and pleasures that lay ahead. Suddenly, a man’s solemn voice shatters the silence of this moving tableau. “Homemaking. A woman’s most rewarding way of life.” Thus begins the 1950 premiere of The Betty Crocker Show. The scene shifts to reveal an impeccably groomed Betty Crocker seated at a desk in a nondescript office. Betty delivers a brief sermon about love, food, and the American way of life before trading her office for a gleaming kitchen, where an assistant whips up a pie crust using a General Mills boxed mix. A dramatization of a letter concerning mince pie and Thanksgiving dinner follows. Laura Shapiro describes this businesslike Betty Crocker as “a career homemaker with no need for a home…as out of place as a doily on a desk.” (193)
For the past ninety years, Betty Crocker has graced General Mills food products with her beaming face or, when portraits became unfashionable, her bold signature. Betty has communicated with the American public through print, radio, and television. Today anyone with internet access can go to BettyCrocker.com and browse a massive recipe archive, watch a video about preparing a particular meal, or contemplate the winners of the Mix It Up with Betty! Cookie Mix Recipe Contest. Betty Crocker’s personality has been projected through virtually every type of popular media on a national level and, if interaction with the public is any measure of worth, her early years were a tremendous success. Her smiling face and charming tone even helped the processed food industry gain an edge in an initially unimpressed market. Though Betty had a genuine impact on women who benefited from her knowledge, she rose out of consumerism and, in her later years, her message shifted from empathy to marketing—rather than assuring women her words would guide them, Betty said she would help them if they purchased her products. Shortly after Betty made the ideological transition from helpful friend to cake mix cheerleader, she fell from favor.
Creating the American Consumer
Christine Frederick, a pioneer in the field of consumer research, emphasized the importance of focusing on efficiency and convenience in spurring the “household revolution” in her 1929 book Selling Mrs. Consumer (Frederick 166). Frederick, an appliance tester for Ladies’ Home Journal, describes the advances made in her own industrialized home. In its most primitive stage in 1911, Frederick did most of the housework by hand, laboriously pumping water, cleaning and filling oil lamps, washing clothes in a labor-intensive machine which required a great deal of attention, and smoothing clothing with a coal heated iron. The second stage of evolution was completed six years later and featured gasoline-burning lamps, a “gas-engine” which pumped water, an oil-burning stove, and a “self-heating alcohol hand iron.” At the time of the publication of Selling Mrs. Consumer, Frederick was pleased to declare that her home had reached the third stage of evolution: electric lights, electric washing machines, a vacuum cleaner for the rugs, and a “power ironer” for pressing linens. (Frederick 168)
By purchasing and installing helpful appliances, Frederick was able to cut down on the exhausting labor and mindless drudgery of domestic chores and earn a bit of leisure time, so naturally she suggested focusing on the perceived benefits of a device would be a more successful marketing tactic than emphasizing mechanical or technical qualities. As a consumer, she found more satisfaction in the results rather than the craftsmanship of her purchases or the process of using such technological marvels. Labor-saving technology, while certainly beneficial in terms of helping women maximize the returns to their domestic efforts, may be seen as a strong expression of consumerist philosophy: liberation through consumption.
In Captains of Consciousness, Stuart Ewen describes how industrialization spurred the expansion of advertising in the 1920s and transformed the role of the individual from producer to consumer. Prior to the economic shift from a primarily agrarian system to an industrial system, the majority of American citizens lived in rural areas at what was essentially a subsistence level. During the late 1800s, when manufacturing began to take off, over 50% of the labor force was employed on a farm of some sort. Small-scale agricultural production was often the pursuit of the entire family; husbands, wives, and children all contributed their energy to the success of the farm. What could not be grown or made at home had to be purchased, and the efforts of every family member were needed to scratch staples and cash crops from the soil. Such a system would naturally be patriarchal as decreed by tradition; however, every family member played a necessary role in making the home a place of independent production where thriftiness was a prized quality. The family, united by necessity, was the default social unit of rural existence. (Ewen 115)
Revolutionary manufacturing technology coupled with increasing urban populations encouraged a drastic change from home production to factory production. By the late 1920s, as much as two thirds of the national income went toward purchasing necessities like fresh and preserved foods, clothing, and furniture. Growing numbers of people left their country lifestyles for the bright lights of the cities, transforming from family members to individuals along the way. (Ewen 116) Rather than sharing the rewards of their labor with relatives, such individuals looked to large companies for both wages and sustenance. In all actuality, familial authority was replaced by a new kind of patriarchal authority: the corporate boss.
What precipitated the ubiquitous shift from producer to consumer? Farm life was certainly difficult and uncertain, and perhaps young people found the rural social climate too oppressive and saw a profitable escape in the glamour of urban life. Changing ideology may have contributed as well; the 1920s were an era of excess and enjoyment, a much more pleasant view than the “make do” attitude necessitated by farming. While the blame for this physical and ideological migration can not rest solely on advertising, increased publicity for products and brands could certainly have been a factor. As the number of manufactured goods increased, a suitably large market for such items had to be created in order for industrial profits to be realized. Rather than marketing solely to upper class citizens, companies decided to try to dip into the pockets of the average laborer. Marketers attempted to sell entire glittering, appliance-laden lifestyles rather than touting the benefits of a particular item, an approach which is prominent today. (Ewen 54)
Competitive consumption, otherwise known as keeping up with the Joneses, has been an American tradition since the 1950s. However, sociology professor Juliet Schor suggests, our neighborhoods have expanded to include not only the house down the street but also vacation homes in Costa Rica and celebrity mansions so that “luxury, rather than mere comfort, [became] a widespread aspiration.” As the focus of wage earners shifts from the home to more remote locations through formal employment and television, an entirely new view of socioeconomic structure was available. As documentary filmmaker Jean Kilbourne suggested in Killing Us Softly 3, “advertising is the foundation of the mass media, the primary purpose of the mass media is to sell products,” and “advertising does sell products.” However, it also promotes “values, it sells images, it sells concepts of love…and perhaps most important, of normalcy.” Due to the media bias toward the very wealthy, the average person’s perception of the economic situation of others became inflated; as the American income distribution became more skewed, an “aspirational gap” developed in which people are unable to earn enough money to purchase the lifestyle they desire. Today ever-increasing bankruptcy rates and credit card debt combined with practically nonexistent savings are obvious results of the social situation. (Schor)
Advertising as a Technology
Broadly defined, technology refers to using scientific knowledge to advance industrial or commercial aims. Advertising could not really be considered technological until the 1920s though advertisements have appeared in magazines and newspapers for hundreds of years. As much of the American population hovered precariously near the subsistence level, possessed little cash, and had limited access to credit, marketing was essentially useless until mechanized production increased output to massive levels and new customers were needed to keep business going. By the 1920s a sizeable proportion of the population worked for wages and manufacturers, swayed by the brand-new advertising industry, began to reach out to consumers in all socioeconomic brackets. (Ewen 32)
Older advertisements touted the technical benefits of a particular product or emphasized its scientific nature, but the early 1900s marked an important shift in advertising. Rather than appealing to logic and urging consumers to choose the best item based on mechanical merit, advertisers began to speak to what they called instincts by highlighting the desire for beauty, leisure, and self-consciousness about social status. The worth of the consumer replaced the worth of the product as the focus of marketing. (Ewen 39) Rather than selling a product, advertisers elected to sell an entire lifestyle by associating their brand with comfort, prosperity, and high social standing. (Ewen 54) Though the delivery of such messages has become increasingly more sophisticated over time, the main thrust of ads has not changed for over one hundred years: you are a sad, inadequate little person and the only way you can become happy and socially accepted is through consumption.
The power of suggestion was well-documented as early as the 1920s. Advising marketers, Christine Frederick writes of Mrs. Consumer, “She most decidedly does not visualize herself as an automaton told what to do by advertising, and of course she is no such thing.” (334) However, even the most wary shopper can be influenced through manipulative suggestions. Floyd Henry Allport, a prominent social psychologist of the early 1900s, suggested consciousness of self is a compilation of our perceptions of how others view us, and our self is “the object of continual and harsh social scrutiny.” (qtd. in Ewen 34) As non-human entities rise in prominence and power and interaction with such personalities increases daily, their view is projected into this conglomerative self-image, suggesting that mass media does indeed have the power to effect our notions of self.
Advertising, then, has been a technology of control since its infancy; however, manipulation rather than brute force is the primary method of mental domination. Within the production system, “raw materials and consumers were both viewed as malleable. They would both have to be shaped by the demands of the production line, pecuniary interests, and the newly emergent managerial tool of capital.” (Ewen 26) Industrialization provided both the means for producing increasingly sophisticated goods and the mindset necessary for consumption of those goods. Factory work at the turn of the century contrasted sharply with the rural or farm-based lifestyle. Rather than producing necessities for an intimate group of family members through menial labor, the typical working-class corporate employee spent their days supervising a machine or performing simple monotonous tasks. While both types of work were physically demanding, the factory worker held the unique role of toiling for a vague corporate authority figure and receiving impersonal wages in return. Advertisements during this time period emphasized the current insignificance of the individual and then suggested a product or five to ameliorate the laborer’s ennui.
Common Themes in Food Advertising
Though the food industry markets a wide variety of products to an increasingly diverse audience, the tactics used over the past century have been remarkably consistent. Fortified granola bars are introduced in 2007 like canned meals in 1957 and heavily branded candies in 1907 by associating women with food. Whether women are depicted shopping, cooking, or serving a hearty meal, the link between food and female servility is a remarkably long-lived cultural tradition despite the dynamic nature of gender roles. In the book Food is Love, Katherine Parkin explores past and present themes in food advertising and suggests that most food advertisements may be grouped under a handful of umbrella categories based on their message to women.
Advertisements have encouraged women to consider the emotional element of cooking since the beginning of the 20th century, portraying affection in particular as closely tied to food. Women are depicted expressing their love by feeding their families, implying that bad cooking or, even more horrifying, not cooking was a sign of apathy and disinterest in the family’s well-being. (Parkin 30) If love makes a home and good food is a prerequisite for love, apathy toward cooking on the part of a wife or mother can apparently crush domestic stability and tranquility like a stale cookie.
Thanks to a host of publications on cooking and caring for children plus an ever-expanding supply of gizmos and gadgets designed to make domestic work easier, continued insistence on women as homemakers and nurturers seems more than a little ludicrous. In an industrialized society men and women are capable of performing the same service or white collar jobs, and as cooking with appliances requires little intuition or physical strength, anyone who is willing to open a book and follow directions can make a satisfactory meal. Even today men and children are portrayed as cooks only in very limited circumstances; apparently all the science of the industrialized kitchen cannot imbue food with that feminine spark of affection required to produce meals which are emotionally and physically satisfactory. The notion of caring through cookery is the root of all food advertising aimed at women.
Additionally, food quality is associated with the health and success of individual women, the nuclear family and, by extension, the United States as a whole. In one edition of her popular radio show, Betty Crocker warned women about the dangers of improperly feeding a husband.
“If you load a man’s stomach with soggy boiled cabbage, greasy friend potatoes…can you wonder that he wants to start a fight, or go out and commit a crime? We should be grateful that he does nothing worse than display a lot of temper.” (Marks 31)
Women, then, were held directly responsible for their husband’s success or failure. In 2005 film The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio, Julianne Moore’s character visits her priest to talk about her husband’s drinking problem. He scolds her for neglecting her wifely duties and suggests that the best way to combat her husband’s moodiness was to make their home as happy as possible. As the guardian of the purity and peace of the home, she was at fault for allowing her husband to spiral into depression and alcoholism. Husbands, like children, had to be gently reminded to eat their vegetables lest they become grouchy or cruel due to malnutrition or exhaustion; if a woman truly loved her family she would accept this burden and buy whatever brand of vegetable promised to deliver the most energy. All of her woes could be dissipated if she would only buy the right product.
A mother’s cooking was also depicted as a prominent factor in her children’s health, and the discovery of vitamins in the 1920s led to a maniacal focus on the power of proper nutrition in preventing illness. (Parkin 162) Advertisements for Campbell’s Soup featuring the Campbell Kids projected the image of the ideal child: lively, healthy, vigorous, and cherubic. Children were frequently pictured following in their parents’ footsteps. For example, a smiling little girl would help her mother in the kitchen while a husky boy assisted his father in the woodshop, implying that a particular food would help children become well-adjusted adults able to function according to societal expectations. (Parkin 204)
Even in today’s advertisements, men are rarely depicted cooking or serving food, but they often function as authoritative figures that approve or dismiss a woman’s cooking. Though these men did not cook on a regular basis, playing the role of provider rather than nurturer in family life, they were apparently blessed with an innate understanding of good food and were able to judge the quality of a woman’s efforts. (Parkin 129) Scientists, doctors, and chefs began endorsing products in advertisements in the early 1900s, and these invariably male experts were portrayed as qualified through education or experience to tell women what and how to cook. (Parkin 130) Recall the ideological shift from production to consumerism was taking place at the same time; as people continually looked outside the home for employment and sustenance, increased emphasis on external authority figures making domestic suggestions was certainly not coincidental.
Endrijonas, Erika. “Processed Foods from Scratch: Cooking for a Family in the 1950s.” Kitchen Culture in America. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 157-173.
Frederick, Christine. Selling Mrs. Consumer. New York: Business Bourse, 1929.
Killing Us Softly 3: Advertising’s Image of Women. Dir. Sut Jhaly. Prod. Media Education Foundation. Created by Jean Kilbourne. Viewed on GoogleVideo. <http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-1993368502337678412&q=killing+us+softly>
Marks, Susan. Finding Betty Crocker. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005.
Parkin, Katherine. Food is Love: Food Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.
The Prize Winner of Defiance, Ohio. Dir. Jane Anderson. Perf. Julianne Moore and Woody Harrelson. Revolution Erie Productions Ltd, 2005.
Schor, Juliet. “The New Politics of Consumption.” Boston Review Summer 1999. <http://bostonreview.net/BR24.3/schor.html>
Shapiro, Laura. Something from the Oven. New York: Viking, 2004.
Smith, Christopher Holmes. “Freeze Frames: Frozen Foods and Memories of the Postwar American Family.” Kitchen Culture in America. Ed. Sherrie A. Inness. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001. 175-209.
OK, this seems like a good place to end for this week. Discuss at will, SVP!!!