Slow Food Co-option May 7, 2009Posted by Ian Duckles in Ethics, Food and Drink, politics.
I was watching television the other night (Lost, the only show I actually watch when it airs), and I was struck by a number of the ads. In particular, I was struck by the obviousness of a particular advertising strategy that I have begun to notice with more frequency lately (I assume this tactic is as old as advertising, I have just been paying more attention). This is the co-option by large corporations of the imagery and rhetoric of various grass-roots movements in an attempt to defuse and defang the legitimate concerns being articulated by these groups. We have seen this in the last few years with the co-option of the “green” movement. When even Wal-Mart is airing ads touting their environmental credentials, you know something fishy is going on. The ads in question that really struck me and motivated me to write this post were targeted at an off-shoot of the environmental movement: the Slow Food Movement.
I am a huge proponent of the Slow Food Movement. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, Slow Food began in Italy in the mid-80’s, initially as a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s in Rome. The founders were concerned that the globalization of food was destroying the centuries-old local cuisine of Italy. It is primarily a philosophy of food and food policy that emphasizes eating seasonal, whole (generally unprocessed or minimally processed) foods that are grown and produced locally. Naturally, it has an emphasis on consuming food grown by local farmers, rather than relying on large agribusiness that imports food from around the globe. Connected to this is an emphasis on seasonal eating, i.e. eating foods that are grown in your area when they are in season, rather than importing foods that are out of season in your area from all around the world. In addition to being an environmentally responsible conception of food and food production, it is a really fun and satisfying way to eat. We are fortunate here in San Diego in that we have a large number of restaurants that adopt elements of this philosophy in the creation of their menus. One of my local favorites is Sea Rocket Bistro in South Park. There are many others as well.
As the movement gains traction and support in the US (the first National Slow Food Festival took in San Francisco last Memorial Day), it is quite fascinating, and also a little disturbing, to see how the rhetoric and imagery of this movement is being co-opted by large corporations whose business philosophy is antithetical to the principles of the slow food movement. This is not so different with what happened to “organic” food, but in many cases the direct co-option is both more obvious and more insidious at the same time.
As an illustration of my point, check out this new product being offered by Pepsi
I particularly like the image of the beautiful flowers growing out of the top of the can, suggesting perhaps that Pepsi serves as an ideal planting medium for your favorite plants. Beyond this, the idea of replacing high-fructose corn syrup, a highly refined product that requires an advanced chemistry lab to produce, with “natural” sugar (not exactly sure what natural means, that is one of those words one finds in ad copy that sounds important but which is actually completely meaningless), is very much in keeping with the general ideals of the slow food movement. However, the fact that Pepsi is a mass produced, highly-refined product filled with various chemicals whose names I cannot pronounce that has no support from the local food shed, makes nonsense of these claims of naturalness.
I am also fond of this clever McDonald’s ad campaign co-opting similar imagery. Notice all the pretty pictures of fresh vegetables glistening with the morning dew and bursting with flavor. All the images are designed to create associations in the viewer’s mind between freshness and whole, unprocessed foods when, of course, the reality of McDonald’s is exactly the opposite.
What seems to happen here (and this is, of course, nothing new) is that an important movement comes into being and gains prominence. At the very moment when it appears that followers of the movement might be able to bring about actual change, large corporations step in and co-opt the imagery and rhetoric of the movement. This is extremely frustrating and upsetting for those of us committed to the ideals of these movements, but, as a critical thinking instructor, it ensures I will have no shortage of case studies to use in my courses.