phenom





by Tom Vanderbilt

I've smelled teen spirit, heard the mermaids singing, felt my heart stop and watched my luck run out. But I had never—until recently, that is—tasted the franchise. It happened quite innocently, when a friend proffered a riotously colored and wrinkled bouquet of plastic, which turned out to be a bag of snack food. Upon further inspection, I discerned that this was not just any generic fried crinkle of agricultural byproduct, but a true totem of the epoch: Pizza Hut-flavored Doritos.

My mind shuffled through the implications of this triangular wonder: Why not just pizza-flavored Doritos? Could there be a Doritos-flavored slice of Pizza Hut pizza? And what, exactly, does Pizza Hut taste like? I imagined, as I bit, that I would be transported, as Proust was when he nibbled at his Madeleines, into a sepia-colored (or is that flavored?) snapshot of a time long and irretrievably past. Doritos themselves could pique my teenage nostalgic sensibility plenty, but now the very essence of Pizza Hut would be swept up in that flood of memory: eating 24-inch pies of ketchup-mild sauce and hills of cheese, drinking pitchers of cloyingly syruped Pepsi, and peering through dully-filmed spit shields, intended to guard anemic shards of iceberg lettuce, in the frenzied aftermath of Little League baseball victories.

But the bite was not as I had imagined. What I got was a chip that tasted vaguely like the former "taco"-flavored Dorito, and this seemed immensely wrong in light of another new Doritos product, "Taco Bell Supreme Doritos." If Pizza Hut tasted like tacos, then what would Taco Bell taste like? Rather than pursue that perilous line of thinking, I spent the remaining chew pondering the fate of the lamented taco-flavored tortilla chip.

There's a revolution afoot in a place not usually known for seismic shifts in cultural sensibility: the supermarket aisle. Brandishing the banners of "co-branding," "partnership marketing," and the increasingly popular "ingredient branding," food retailers have set upon a quest to turn their own products into billboards for other products. With each passing day, the shelves are stocked with the aforementioned "Doritos extension," Bailey's Original Irish Cream Haagen-Däzs, Musselman's Apple Sauce-flavored Delicious Cookies, and Ocean Spray Cranberry Almond Crunch cereal. Brands are becoming the celebrity endorsers of our age—it's no longer enough to know who's using a product, it's vital to know what "value added" you are getting when you buy a product. Breyer's is using Maxwell House coffee in its cappuccino-flavored ice cream, so it too must be "good to the last drop!"

For its sponsoring companies, co-branding is a relatively low-risk way to bolster brand recognition. Unless, of course, the consumer doesn't happen to like the brand with which you've melded. There's also the danger of eroding your own "brand equity" with too many new-product rollouts. But in these synergous times, it's usually a win-win strategy. After all, in the case of the newly flavored Doritos, the same company—PepsiCo.—owns Frito Lay, Pizza Hut, and Taco Bell. That, and not some redeeming semblance of good taste, explains the absence of McDonald's-flavored Doritos.

For the consumer, the equation is much trickier. The brand, which emerged nationally in the late 1800s as mass production and distribution techniques put the same goods in stores nationwide, has been for a century a relatively handy way of replacing the individual salesperson of old with an easily identifiable symbol. But now, with this spate of brands mating with brands, let's call it hyperbranding, the brand has gone from a mere product to one of the senses, a flavor in itself.

Admittedly, the brand had already acquired that power in the realm of imagination. Why else, for example, would we see Dannon Water on the shelf? Certainly not because we would expect to find traces of yogurt lining the sides of the bottle. As a company spokesperson explained, in fluent marketing-speak, to Brandweek: "Dannon's core equities are exactly the ones you need to be successful in the water category." Right. And since children's cereal is essentially candy anyway, the Reese's company must have the right "core equities" to produce its Reese's Peanut Butter Puffs cereal (if you're not convinced, check the frozen foods aisle and look for the frozen treats based on cereal flavors).

The brand, as Daniel Boorstin wrote in The Image, is the celebrity of the world of products, something that is "well-known for being well-known." A brand is a variety of what Boorstin calls the "pseudo-event," those rigorously planned and orchestrated happenings in our image-soaked culture that are presented as entirely spontaneous. Advertising helps naturalize the product, which by its very existence begins to take on a life of its own. As it does so, it loses all sense of its original purpose. So, walking through the supermarket, it doesn't seem surprising to find "Pop Tarts Crunch," which boasts "cereal, frosting, filling, and sprinkles together for the first time in history." It's as if there were some logical progression at work here that would compel someone to dunk crumbled up bits of toaster pastries in a bowl of milk. Still in the cereal aisle, one wonders if there's a limit to this brand drift, as random logos are cross-wired and thrown up on the side of every box in this Times Square of the supermarket. "Team USA Cheerios" offers a special "Championship Blend," while Lucky Charms offers six new marshmallows modeled after the symbols of the Olympic Games. The only real thing Lucky Charms and the Olympics share are annoying mascots: a Leprechaun and a slug named Whatizit.

In 1961, when Boorstin wrote The Image, the average household received an estimated 1,500 commercial messages per day. That figure is now 16,000 for an individual consumer, and is only bound to rise under the multiplier effect of co-branding. If we are what we eat, as the old schoolhouse refrain goes, the co-branding craze in food may turn our bodies into walking, breathing sponsorship events. Even restaurants are getting into the act; never before have menus been so littered with trademark logos. Breakfast in a greasy spoon, for example, now becomes the "Lite Breakfast" at Bob Evans Farms, with a "quartet of brands": Egg Beaters, Lender's Bagels, Philadelphia Brand Light Cream Cheese, and its own Bob Evans Country Lite Sausage. Oh, and could I have a Starbucks-flavored coffee with that?   </end>

Illustrations by Mike Gorman

TOM VANDERBILT is an associate editor at The Baffler and a New York-based freelance writer. His article on conceptual artist Gregory Green appeared in the STIM 3.3.
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