And the turkey in the beef breakfast strips . . . the smoke in the natural smoke flavoring . . . the cheez in the Laughing Cow Cheez Bits? America's massive new-product development industry, that's who -- the folks who've turned your local Giant into a kind of edible Wonderland
Maybe it was the fruit snacks shaped like human feet that did it. Or maybe it was the pasta products shaped like dinosaurs and sharks and teddy bears and skateboards and electric guitars. Or maybe it was the candy shaped like earthworms -- fat, juicy night crawlers in a rainbow of artificial pastel colors. Maybe those Gummi Worms caused the strange feeling that The Shopper got when he went to the supermarket.
No, he thought, that wasn't it. He wasn't sure what it was that had first triggered this strange feeling, but he was pretty sure it had arisen before any of those wonderful foods were created by some corporate New Products Development Committee and foisted on an unsuspecting public. He'd had this feeling for a while. It began years ago, long before the Jetsons became a breakfast cereal, before Garfield became a snack treat, before Wile E. Coyote became a frozen hamburger pizza dinner, before the Flintstones and Bugs Bunny became vitamin pills, before the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles became a cereal, a cookie and a line of soft drinks, before Frank Sinatra became a spaghetti sauce, before Tommy Lasorda became a pasta, before Muhammad Ali became a pancake syrup, before Hulk Hogan became a vitamin, before Paul Newman became a salad dressing and a spaghetti sauce and a lemonade and a line of popcorns.
Back in the old days, celebrities hawked food products. Now, celebrities become food products. The Shopper wasn't sure how he felt about this cultural development, but he knew that it contributed to this strange feeling he kept getting in the supermarket.
He tried to remember what had first brought this feeling on. Maybe it was the kosher bacon -- the bacon with no actual pork in it. Or maybe it was the faux butter bits -- with names like Molly McButter and Butter Buds and Best O'Butter -- that were built around the concept of "natural butter flavor." What is natural butter flavor? he wondered. Is it anything like the "natural smoke flavoring" that makes the non-bacon bacon taste vaguely like bacon?
Maybe the feeling first came over him when they started putting lime juice in plastic lime-shape, lime-green containers and calling it ReaLime. Or when they started putting whipped cream in spray cans. Or when cheese started coming in plastic squeeze bottles. Squeeze Cheese, they called it. That made sense, sort of, until he read the line on the bottle that said "Old Fashioned Cheese" and was followed by a TM logo, which meant that the phrase was a registered trademark. That made no sense. The Shopper knew what old-fashioned cheese was, and it didn't come in a squeeze bottle. He liked that old-fashioned kind of old-fashioned cheese better -- it came in chunks, and it had taste and sometimes even a smell.
Did that, he wondered, make him old-fashioned too?
He certainly felt old-fashioned when he wandered through the supermarket. The stuff he encountered there made his head spin. He saw hair dyes called Naturally Blonde and Born Blonde, and he thought, I'm willing to believe that they'll turn your hair blond, but I doubt they'll make you "naturally blonde." He picked up Cake Mate, an "artificially flavored" chocolate icing that came in a tube, like toothpaste. "HOMEMADE TASTE," the tube proclaimed. Homemade? In whose home, he wondered, did they cook up the "natural and artificial flavor" mentioned in the list of ingredients?
In the supermarket, The Shopper saw shampoos made out of milk and honey, and soap made out of oatmeal, and hamburgers made out of tofu, and hot dogs made out of chicken, and a canned fried chicken substitute made out of wheat gluten and peanut butter. He saw a bottle of Mexi-Pep Louisiana Hot Sauce, and he wondered: Is it supposed to be Mexican or Louisianian? He spotted a bag of bagel chips called That's Entertainment, and he thought, No, it's not entertainment, it's food.
But he was wrong, of course. These days, as a trip through any supermarket reveals, food is entertainment.
When The Shopper was young, Americans used to sing, "There's no business like show business," but they don't sing it much anymore, probably because just about every business is like show business now. Supermarkets are certainly no exception. These days, supermarkets are like theme parks, packed full of stuff that's supposed to look like something else, or taste like something else, or smell like something else. Or stuff that has been spun off of a TV show, or a movie, or even a Nintendo game.
Consequently, whenever he went to the supermarket, he got that strange feeling again, the feeling that he'd just dropped down some magic rabbit hole into a Wonderland where reality plays by a bizarre new set of rules.
THE SHOPPER WASN'T THE ONLY ONE WHO GOT THAT feeling. Ruth Newman, who works at the Washington Committee for Soviet Jewry, tells a great story about the first time a Soviet refugee went to an American supermarket. The refugee was a sophisticated woman -- a doctor, in fact -- but she was used to Soviet supermarkets, with their understated packaging and half-empty shelves. So when a relative took her to a local Giant, she came back 20 minutes later, "shaking and shaken." They'd made it through the produce department okay -- who could fail to marvel at all the wonderful fruit and vegetables? -- but when they headed down the first aisle, the one with all the different cheeses and yogurts and the stuff called I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!, the woman fled in terror.
"She couldn't handle it emotionally," Newman says. "Not just the fact that the shelves were filled -- although that was part of it -- but all the choices you have to make: Do you want small curd cottage cheese or large curd cottage cheese? It was too much for her."
The poor woman! Thank God she left when she did. What would have happened if she'd wandered into the very heart of the place, where they keep the Gummi Worms and the Fiddle Faddle and the Crunch 'n Munch and the Nice 'n Easy and the Laughing Cow Cheez Bits and the Count Chocula cereal? What if she had stumbled upon the hair color product called Instant Beauty and bought it for $3.49, and tried it, and failed to become instantly beautiful? Would that have destroyed her faith in capitalism?
And what if she were just learning English and she started trying to figure out what the products were? Huge hunks of her hard-learned vocabulary would become instantly irrelevant. In the supermarket, unlike English class, Joy is a dish soap, Success is a rice, Secret is a deodorant, Promise is a margarine, Rhapsody is a cookie, Ivory is a soap, Loving Care is a hair dye, Ultra Rich is a shampoo, Dawn is a dish soap, American Heritage is a cracker, and Serenity is a diaper designed for incontinent adults.
Not to mention Life, which is, of course, a breakfast cereal.
Strange as supermarkets may sometimes seem, they are only as bizarre as the industry that keeps them stocked with a steady stream of weird new wares to peddle. The new products development industry, as it's called, embraces a wide variety of trades. There are psychologists who study the contents of consumers' kitchens for clues on how people "bond" with brand names. There are linguists who come up with names for new products. There are "master perfumers" who figure out how to give laundry detergents a "sunshine scent." There are flavor chemists and food technologists who figure out how to make processed meats taste the way they used to taste before all their flavor was processed out. And there are, of course, advertising experts who figure out how to persuade people to want this stuff.
It is this industry, in case you were beginning to wonder, that is the subject of this story.
THE SHOPPER WALKED UP TO THE SUPERMARKET AND THE doors swung open, as if operated by invisible palace guards.
He strode inside, into the most giant of all Giants, the biggest supermarket in the Washington metropolitan area, the behemoth at Baileys Crossroads in Virginia, with 66,000 square feet of space and 45,000 varieties of Great American Stuff. It's more than a supermarket, it's an Ultra-Mega-Multi-Super-Duper-Market, complete with a florist shop, a wine store, a Fannie May candy store, a deli, a soup-and-salad bar and machines that dispense cold soda and hot coffee, just in case a shopper's strength starts to wane before he's completed the long, 23-aisle odyssey. The place has everything needed to sustain human life, and it's open 24 hours a day. You could probably live here, The Shopper thought, if you just put a few decoy items in your shopping cart and kept moving.
He commandeered a cart and started to reconnoiter the perimeter, just to get acclimated. The first thing he noticed was the unbearable liteness of just about everything. Products that had always been pleasantly plump had been sent to fat farms, forced to slim down and liten up. He saw lite cheese and lite hot dogs and light baloney and Lite Hawaiian Punch and lite popcorn and lite maple syrup and Alpo Lite dog food, and Aunt Jemima's Lite Microwave Pancakes and even Twinkies Lights. Twinkies Lights? It seemed like an oxymoron, a crime against nature, like an anorexic Santa Claus.
As ubiquitous as the lite stuff was the New! Improved! stuff. Giant labeled its new items with little red signs that proclaimed, "It's New!" They were everywhere, sprouting like dandelions after a spring storm. New cocoa mixes, new fruit juices, new dinosaur-shape pasta, new shark-shape spaghetti, new Rock Concert noodles, new Light Doritos, new Pop-Secret Singles Light microwave popcorn, new Sara Lee Lights Double Chocolate Cake . . .
Ha! The Shopper scoffed. Bunk, he muttered. Do they really expect me to believe that hundreds of new products appeared this year?
ACTUALLY IT WAS 10,238 NEW PRODUCTS. AND THAT WAS just in the first nine months of the year.
It broke down like this: 25 new baby foods, 81 new pet foods, 95 new breakfast cereals, 133 new soups, 389 new side dishes, 505 new processed meats, 547 new entrees, 871 new beverages, 1,150 new candies/gums/snacks, 1,689 new condiments, 1,806 new health and beauty aids and . . . But who's counting?
Gorman's New Product News, the magazine of "new supermarket food and nonfood product introductions" -- that's who's counting. The bible of the business, it dutifully records the birth of each new item, everything from Yocrunch to Quark cheese, from Dip-Lomat Mexican sauces to David's A'Maizn' Choco Pop.
There are intellectuals in ivory towers out there who lament the passing of America's Golden Age of Invention, the age that produced Edison's light bulb and the Wright brothers' biplane and Ford's Model T. But the readers of New Product News know that American ingenuity is alive and well and inventing everything from Flintstones Yabba-Dabba-Doo drinks to Orchards of Nazareth Olive Branch briquettes, from Undercover Bears Instant Oatmeal to Fat Freedom Eskimo Pie sandwiches, from F3 Breath Neutralizer to Bio Blu cleaner, which "does a whale of a job, but won't harm the whales."
It's not easy to think up great ideas like that, and companies try all sorts of baroque ways to summon the muse. Some, like Lipton and Hershey, hire Chris Miller, a Massachusetts-based psychologist who is now a new products consultant. Miller takes out about a dozen people from a client company to a nice country inn for a week-long "invent." To get their creative juices flowing, he'll have them build sculptures out of food packages. Then he'll get them talking about what kind of new products they'd want if they lived underwater or in the jungle or out in space. The ideas start flowing like crazy, he says, scores of ideas, hundreds! At first, of course, the ideas are kind of goofy, he says, but by the end of the week they've got at least one great idea ready to roll.
Unfortunately, he is contractually forbidden from revealing what products he has midwifed into existence in this manner. "They own my firstborn if I talk," he says.
Meanwhile, other companies try to come up with new product ideas by probing the fickle psyche of the American consumer. Allison Cohen, vice president of Ally & Gargano advertising, pays consumers to let her rummage through their kitchen cabinets, videotaping their stuff so she can study what she calls "branding" -- "the relationship between the consumer and the brand." Cohen also did in-depth interviews with chocolate lovers, many of whom confessed that they stash chocolate in secret places around the house -- lingerie drawers, for example. This revelation led to an ad campaign called "The True Confessions of Chocaholics."
Chester "Chet" Kane, president of Kane, Bortree, a New York new products consulting firm, also probes the consumer mind, ferreting out insights into how people's "levels of self-esteem" determine their preferences for products ranging from cookies to cat food. He is very serious about this. He concocted what his company brochure calls "a new process that brings together Psychology, Marketing and Creative in an actionable manner." The process is called STAR -- "Segmentation Through Attitudinal Restructuring" -- and he has used it to create new products for Procter & Gamble, Quaker Oats and Sara Lee, among other major corporations.
For Sara Lee, he studied how self-esteem relates to cake-eating, and he plotted his findings on a very impressive-looking graph. At the top of the graph, he put the "high self-esteem" folks -- the "Sugar Rejectors," the "Dessert Comfortables" and the "Sweet Snackers." Down at the bottom of the graph, cring-ing with self-loathing in the lower left-hand corner, he put the "Anxious Sweet Indulgers," whose low self-esteem leads them to pig out on sweets and then feel rotten about it. These people were a problem for Sara Lee because they avoided buying large-size Sara Lee frozen cakes for fear that when they defrosted them, they'd scarf down the whole damn thing. So Kane recommended that Sara Lee put out a line of single-portion Snack Cakes, which it did, to great success. But Kane isn't resting on his laurels. Recently, he published a Kane, Bortree Bulletin that revealed, among other things, his insights into how high self-esteem (HSE) consumers feel about dog food:
"HSE dog owners prefer newer forms of dog food, e.g., semi-moist vs. canned.
"However, HSE dog owners will buy a canned product such as Cycle and King Kuts which offers a benefit that transcends the form . . ." THE SHOPPER IS A DOG OWNER, SO HE CHECKED OUT THE latest in canine cuisine. He saw some Pup-peroni, which is beef jerky for dogs, and Lickety Sticks, which are beef-hide chews, and Wagtime, which is a dog biscuit "basted with real beef juices." He paused to inspect the doghouse-shape packages of Snausages, which are little hot dogs, like the ones that waiters in tuxedos used to carry around on silver trays at fancy cocktail parties. When human cocktail drinkers switched to cheese-and-spinach balls, he figured, the little wieners must have gone to the dogs.
There was also a deluxe version -- Snausages in a Blanket -- with "beef and cheese flavor" and a picture of a cartoon dog saying, "Wow! It's beef and cheese!" The cartoon was cute, but The Shopper couldn't buy the concept. He had stopped believing that dogs have taste buds the day he watched his dog gleefully devour a dirty Pamper.
He spotted some Bonz, which are dog treats shaped like steak bones. The Bonz box offered a truly incredible item: "Free 'Dogs of the Stars' 1991 Calendar!"
No, he thought. Say it isn't so.
It was so. On the back of the box were pictures from the calendar. Charles M. Schulz's dog, perched in the lap of a giant Snoopy doll! Arnold Palmer's pooch, his paw resting on Arnie's golf bag! Barbara Mandrell's two dogs, lolling on top of Barb's bed! Not to mention Kirstie Alley's dog! And Michael Keaton's dog! "And more!"
Dogs of the Stars?! he muttered. What'll they think of next? FRISBEE FLYING DOG TREATS, THAT'S WHAT.
They'll be coming soon to a supermarket near you, promises Mark Schwimmer, group products manager of the Pet Foods Division of Quaker Oats.
It was Quaker that pioneered the idea of "indulgent dog treats" by creating Pup-peroni and Snausages about seven years ago, says Schwimmer. Since then, the Quaker folks have been constantly on the lookout for new ideas, and edible Frisbees "seemed like a natural." They did some research and found that 40 percent of dog owners play Frisbee with their pooch. So they worked out a deal with Wham-o, which makes Frisbees, and pretty soon Quaker's research scientists were working on a Frisbee that was both edible and aerodynamic.
It wasn't easy.
The first prototypes, which were basically saucer-shape dog biscuits, were so heavy they were dangerous. "They would have given dogs bloody noses," says Jim Kirkwood, the Quaker chemical engineer who headed the team of three "food scientists" that tested the Frisbees.
How did they test them? "By basically standing in the hall of the research center," Kirkwood says, "and tossing them around."
The second prototype turned out to be too light. "It was like throwing a piece of paper," he recalls. "It would wiggle and fall to the ground."
For three long, tough, intellectually challenging months, they kept experimenting, changing the "weight-to-surface-area ratio of the airfoil design," as Kirkwood puts it, until finally, after 15 or 20 prototypes, they came up with one that can soar and sail and hover in the air like the traditional inedible Frisbee.
It is, Schwimmer says proudly, the only food product -- for people or pets -- that can actually fly.
And it comes in two flavors -- bacon and beef. With "natural smoke flavor." "NATURAL SMOKE FLAVORING ADDED," THE SHOPPER READ on the package label.
He was back in aisle 1, home of Honey Corn Dogs with the "Neon Hat Offer," home of the Cheez Whiz Zap-A-Pack, home of Lite Ballpark franks and Oscar Mayer beef baloney with the "Free Wiener Whistle" offer.
But he wasn't looking at those. He was holding a package of Sizzlean, which is a non-bacon bacon, although that's not exactly how they put it on the package. "Cured beef breakfast strips," the package read. "Turkey added." That didn't surprise him. Bacon made out of beef and turkey made perfect sense. "Chopped and formed," the package said. That didn't surprise him either. If you're gonna make bacon out of beef and turkey, he figured, you're gonna have to chop it and form it.
It was that seemingly innocuous phrase "natural smoke flavoring added" that baffled him. He looked at the list of ingredients and there it was: "natural smoke flavoring." He was confused. He'd always thought a smoke flavor was a byproduct of smoking, not a product in itself.
How, The Shopper wondered, can you make a smoke flavor? "IT'S EASY," SAYS GEORGE BERSE, VICE PRESIDENT OF F&C International, a flavor manufacturer based in Cincinnati. "You burn wood and you capture the smoke of the burned wood and you distill it." Then you take the food you want to taste smoky and you "inject it with a smoke flavor."
Bacon flavor is similar, says Berse: "It's basically the smoke flavor and you add meaty notes to it."
That's the way they talk in the flavor business. They talk about "meaty notes" and "butter notes" and "charbroiled notes" and "grilled notes." Notes are flavors, and they whip them up in the lab, mass-produce them in liquid, paste and powder forms, and sell them to food manufacturers who want a little flavor in their foods.
Meanwhile, the taste makers tout their flavors in advertisements in Food Technology magazine:
". . . We created the crab flavor that made surimi taste like real crab meat . . ."
"Whatever flavor you're dreaming of, let the food chemists at Commercial Creamery develop it for you . . ."
"Gistex X-II -- premium yeast extract with a 'meatier' flavor. Enhances and reinforces the delicate flavor of meat, fish, game and poultry . . ."
"Engevita . . . A slightly autolyzed inactive roller drum dried yeast. Low in sodium. High in fiber. Excellent for use in health foods . . ."
Flavors are a multibillion-dollar business and getting bigger fast, thanks to the advent of the microwave oven. The microwave, now present in three out of four American homes, doesn't work like a conventional oven. It cooks by heating the water molecules inside the food. Consequently, it doesn't really bake or roast food, which means that it doesn't produce the flavors that baking and roasting produce. So the manufacturers of microwave baked goods -- cookies and cakes, for example -- have to purchase a "baked flavor" and add it to the food.
"We'll make a baked flavor," says Berse. "We'll take a fat, a protein and a sugar and react them with heat and try to simulate what happens in conventional baking. Then we try to concentrate it and make a flavor out of it."
They do similar things with meat. The meats in frozen and microwave dinners tend to lose some of their precious bodily fluids -- and their flavors -- on the way to your table. "They take on a cardboard-type flavor," says Maureen Draganchuk, a manager at FIDCO, a New York-based flavor producer. "And a manufacturer would want to restore the flavors lost in the process."
Manufacturers do that by injecting the meat -- or its gravy, or both -- with a flavor created in a laboratory and shipped in a 450-gallon drum. Not only can "flavor chemists" create the flavor of, say, chicken, but they can produce the flavor of roast chicken and grilled chicken and fried chicken and barbecued chicken. Sometimes the flavors are made with actual meat products, sometimes they're not.
"They may or may not have ever seen meat," says Draganchuk. "You can make a turkey flavor with no turkey product in it. We have kosher pork and kosher bacon. They're very tasty, and they've never seen a pig."
Right now, in fact, somewhere in this broad and bountiful land, somebody -- or, more likely thousands of somebodies -- is eating a processed chicken dinner that was made to taste more like chicken by the injection of a chicken flavor made without any chicken at all. THE SHOPPER WAS IN AISLE 14, AMONG THE COOKIES, WHEN he began to notice the names. Hi-Ho, Nutter Butter, Rippin' Good, Brite Bites, Doo-Dads, Ritz Bits, Tid-Bits, Mini Middles, Hob-Nobs. Not to mention Nips. And Nabs.
Do they just pick words at random? he wondered. Or is there some meaning here that I'm missing?
It was the same all over the store. Names without meaning: Kix, Trix, Twix, Bigg Mixx, Yoo-Hoo, Hip-O-Lite. Or names made out of words that were "chopped and formed" like that non-bacon bacon over in aisle one: Funfetti, Velveeta, Crantastic, Softasilk, N'Ice, Fri-Chik, Fasteeth, Munchee . . . They were names that e e cummings might have invented, if e e cummings had possessed no poetic talent and gone into the packaged goods business.
Who, The Shopper wondered, makes up these names, anyway? IRA N. BACHRACH DOES. BACHRACH AND OTHER LINGUISTS and semanticists scattered across America.
Bachrach is the founder and president of Namelab, a San Francisco-based company that manufactures monikers. Namelab has named cars -- the Acura, the Geo and the Lumina, for example. But most of Bachrach's business involves naming packaged goods -- beer, wine, soft drinks, pain relievers, cosmetics, cookies. "The cookie wars have not only put gas in our Mercedes," he says, "they bought our Mercedes."
Unfortunately, he is contractually for- bidden from revealing which cookies bought his Mercedes. "We're not allowed to say what packaged goods we named, and nobody else is either," he says. "You sign a 12-page confidentiality agreement that says they can take your firstborn male child if you talk about Product J-12. It's a very secretive business."
And a very dangerous business, apparently, for the firstborn offspring of its practitioners.
Bachrach builds his names out of "morphemes," which he calls the "semantic kernels of words." The van in vanguard or advantage, for example, is a morpheme that means front of, top of or leading edge of. Namelab has a list of 6,200 morphemes in American English. When a client hires Namelab, Bachrach asks what messages the name should express. Then he and his staff of four start combining morphemes that express those messages. That process produces a long list, which they whittle down by eliminating names that already exist, as well as names that don't have "phonetic energy" or aren't easily pronounceable by, say, Koreans or Arabs. Finally, Bachrach delivers a list of two to six names, along with a learned essay explaining why they're good ones.
When, for example, Chevrolet wanted a name for a car it was making in a joint venture with Toyota -- a name that would appeal to Americans who preferred foreign cars to domestic ones -- Namelab came up with Geo. "Geo suggests world," explains Bachrach, "whereas Chevy suggests American."
The right name can mean the difference between success and failure in the marketplace, says Bachrach. In fact, names and packages and images are frequently the only difference between packaged goods. "In most categories," he says, "most products are physically identical or very close to it." Consequently, clients don't mind paying him $60,000 or $70,000 to come up with a name that will help sell their product. "Nobody cares what we charge," he says. "Believe me, we're making out like gangbusters."
Of course, Namelab's clients don't just take Bachrach's word about the commercial appeal of Bachrach's words. Inevitably, they hire an ad agency to test the pro- spective names with the public, a process that can cost far more than Namelab's fee. "In the packaged goods business," Bachrach says sardonically, "nobody goes to the bathroom without doing a test." Sometimes, the tests reveal that a name doesn't work -- or works too well. Once, says Bachrach, a vitamin manufacturer hired Namelab to design a name that suggested that its vitamin was stronger than the competition's. Bachrach came up with a name -- which he is, of course, contractually forbidden from revealing -- and he also suggested that the vitamin pill be silver, a color that, he says, denotes strength. When the company tested the name using silver placebos -- which contained no vitamins at all -- people complained that the pills were too strong, that they were so packed with vitamins that they prevented sleep.
"We made a name so powerful," says Bachrach, "that people didn't want it."
THE SHOPPER BEGAN WONDERING about smells. Not the smells in the supermarket -- which was curiously devoid of aroma -- but the smells inside the boxes.
He was in aisle 18, home of toilet bowl cleaners and fabric softeners and detergents. A moment ago, he was wondering why anyone in his right mind would want to name a toilet bowl cleaner "Cling." But now he was pondering a question far more metaphysically perplexing: What does sunshine smell like?
He was looking at the detergents. Dash, he read, contained a lemon scent. That made sense. Era had a "Fresh Scent." All had a "New Fresh Scent." Those too seemed plausible, if rather vague. Yes was, according to its box, "Rainbow Free." He believed that too: He'd certainly never seen a rainbow in a box of Yes. It was Gain that threw him for a loss. The Gain box touted its "Sunshine Scent."
Does sunshine have a scent? he wondered. And can you put it in a box?
NO, IT DOESN'T, SAYS RALPH MARTIN. And, yes, you can. Sort of.
Martin is a "master perfumer" at Firmenich, a New Jersey-based fragrance company. He doesn't make the kind of perfume that women dab on their necks. He makes the kind of perfume that Procter & Gamble, Mennen, Avon and Colgate put in soaps and deodorants and detergents. Of course, he can't reveal which soaps and deodorants and detergents, because of the infamous firstborn-child agreement.
"If you look at detergents," he says, "they'll say 'Outdoor Fresh' or 'Clothesline Fresh' or God knows what else, 'April Fresh.' They put all kinds of things on the box or the bottle. I guess that's poetic advertising. And we come up with a fragrance that would support that copy. We try to figure out what would support that. But to say that we could recreate the actual smell of a clothesline or a sunny day, no, we can't do that."
The reason that Ralph Martin is employed -- the reason, in fact, that there are scores of companies producing fragrances -- is simple: "Everything," he says, "normally smells somewhat unpleasant." Soaps and detergents, in fact, have a fatty, greasy smell. Consequently, manufacturers want to add a little perfume. But what kind? Lemon is big these days. Sometimes a lemon scent is actually made out of some part of a lemon tree. Sometimes not. It doesn't make much difference. "There are two or three hundred products that say 'lemon,' and none of them smell alike," he says. In fact, some don't even necessarily smell like a lemon: "If they didn't have the word 'lemon' on the box, nobody would know it was supposed to be lemon."
Detergents are detergents, Martin says: "They all clean the clothes. The only difference is the fragrance and the color." But fragrance and color trigger emotions in the human brain, which makes them very important ingredients. "It's a subconscious thing," he says, "that you put in the products to give them some advantage over another product."
Frequently, a manufacturer will put different smells in different batches of the same detergent and then have consumers compare them. And frequently, the results defy logic. "The consumer will say that one cleans better or foams better than the other," Martin says. "And the only difference is the perfume."
Which doesn't surprise him at all. "The public," he says, "will believe a lot."
THE SHOPPER COULDN'T BELIEVE IT. HE was looking at a box of fruit snacks shaped like human feet. Funny Feet, they were called. Why, he wondered, would anybody want to eat something shaped like human feet?
He looked around. There were yards and yards of these fruit snacks, products that contain real natural fruit, as well as real natural corn syrup and real natural modified food starch and real natural artificial flavors, among other real natural things. They came in every conceivable shape, and some fairly inconceivable ones too. There were fruit snacks shaped like dinosaurs, like sharks, like meteorites, like electric guitars, like hamburgers, like Garfield, like the Super Mario Brothers of Nintendo fame, like "Galactic Gems," like jets, including the only recently declassified Stealth bomber.
Is there somebody out there, The Shopper wondered, who sits in an office somewhere and says, Okay, let's make food shaped like warplanes? NOT EXACTLY, SAYS BARRY WEGENER,
a spokesman for General Mills, which is one of the two superpowers engaged in an all-out war for your fruit snack dollars.
"There's really no one person who sits down and says, 'Let's do airplanes,' " Wegener says. "Well, maybe somebody did say that, but probably somebody else said, 'Let's do jets.' "
And somebody else decided that the MiG fighter should be red, and the Stealth bomber black and the F-14 orange. And so on.
In other words, it's a committee that makes these crucial decisions -- a new products development team working in the Betty Crocker Division of General Mills, a division named, by the way, after a fictitious homemaker invented by an adman. The team has a leader, but it's a rotating post, so nobody can ever become an all-powerful fruit snacks czar. The team likes to keep its collective finger on the pulse of America's 6- to 11-year-olds. Team members, says Wegener, "read popular magazines. They see kids' movies, kids' books, see what the kids are attracted to."
When the committee comes up with a new shape, it collects some authentic kids in a focus group and asks them what they think of the idea. If the kids like it, the company makes a prototype and shows it to another focus group of authentic kids. If they get sufficiently excited, the shape is produced and test-marketed. It's a slow, careful, step-by-step process that is sometimes jettisoned in favor of speed, Wegener says, if the shape in question is so cool, so boss, so awesome that the committee members are worried that the competition might beat them to it.
The competition is Lipton, which makes Funny Feet and Mario Brothers and fruit snacks shaped like bats and insects and monsters, among other things. The people at Lipton won't reveal how they dreamed up snacks shaped like human feet. "Companies want to steal that kind of information from each other," explains Lipton spokeswoman Jan Lewis.
This cutthroat competition began back in 1987, when Lipton introduced fruit snacks shaped like animals and letters and numbers. Soon, General Mills countered with bears and jets and sharks. And Lipton responded with dinosaurs and rock-and-roll instruments and the Adventures of Link, which is another Nintendo spinoff. And General Mills countered with hot-car shapes and fast-food shapes. And Lipton came out with Wacky Players --
fictitious baseball and football players, like the Crusher, a 410-pound linebacker born in a "nuclear testing facility." And General Mills responded with Surf's Up!, which contains dune buggies and palm trees and surfers and sunglasses -- all of them in what Wegener describes as "the traditional Valley Girl colors, the greens and the
While these behemoths battle for the fruit snack market -- a $150 million business, according to General Mills, a $300 million business, according to Lipton --
parents stand in supermarkets wondering, Are these things any good for you?
"They won't hurt you," says Wegener. Then he laughs. "Nutritionally, there is no nutritional benefit from them. You'd be better off eating an apple or an orange."
THE SHOPPER FELT A COLD ARCTIC wind on his neck and he knew that he'd reached the store's last frontier -- frozen foods, home of Looney Tunes dinners, including Daffy Duck Spaghetti and Meatballs and Wile E. Coyote Hamburger Pizzas.
Finally, running on empty, he pushed his stuff-stuffed cart into one of the store's 22 checkout lines. While the cashier dragged his groceries over the machine that deciphered the Universal Product Codes -- ping! ping! ping! -- he studied the last of the store's 45,000 products that a shopper sees: the tabloids.
"Ex-Hollywood Starlet Charges: Reagan Made Me Pregnant and Paid for Abortion!" said one. "Caroline Makes Believe Husband Is Still Alive!" said another. And there were more revelations: Elvis's daughter was dating an Elvis impersonator! The incredible shrinking Oprah had become the incredibly expanding Oprah!
Who reads this foolishness? he wondered.
Then it hit him. Suddenly, after all these years, he finally realized why these absurd newspapers were sold at supermarket checkout lines:
After wandering through a Wonderland of Gummi Worms and Ninja Turtles and Laughing Cow cheese and "indulgent dog treats" and kosher pork and sunshine scent and cakes designed for people with low self-esteem and non-baked baked goods injected with baked flavors and edible Stealth bombers and cookies named by linguists and frozen dinners named after cartoon coyotes and the spaghetti sauces of the stars and the "Dogs of the Stars" calendar -- after all that stuff, the preposterous headlines on these outlandish newspapers seemed perfectly plausible.
After piling his groceries into the car, The Shopper cracked open his one impulse purchase, the Funny Feet, and popped a few into his mouth. Much to his surprise, they were good. Downright yummy. Without a doubt, the best human-foot-shape food he'd even eaten. Almost good enough, in fact, to make him forget that strange feeling he got whenever he went to the supermarket.
Almost, but not quite.