• Carmen Marie Fabio

Spin doctors


We ran out of margarine on the weekend which, in itself is not really a big deal but given the grocery consumption in my house, resulted in a few of us holding empty butter-knives, staring at the pound of cold butter, unsure of what to do. Kind of the same way the dog looks if we move his food dish.

Of course we overcame the learning curve (hey, you gotta eat) as my middle son who’s the star baker in the family asked, “Why do we always eat margarine instead of butter anyways?”

I’m not really sure but I imagine somewhere along the line, I figured it was better for our health to use margarine and never really looked back.

The recent media reports that surfaced revealing how the sugar industry paid scientists for favourable research in the 1960s shows the potential power of persuasion a good marketing campaign can have. Butter earned a bad rap as cholesterol and saturated fats became vilified and was thrown under the heart disease bus while the negative dietary effects of sugar were quietly downplayed for decades.

Butter and margarine ended up fighting a separate public relations battle over, of all things, the colour yellow. Butter producers reportedly objected to the similarity of a mass-market substitute eating into their profits and successfully lobbied for restrictions on the use of yellow dye in its production. The clever margarine folks got around this by including a small blister pack of yellow dye with each pound of margarine sold which the consumer could then mix in themselves. I still have vivid memories of visiting my grandmother in northern Ontario as a child and watching as one of the big people would undergo the bizarre ritual of kneading a white blob in a plastic bag until it either turned a pale yellow or ruptured.

The renaissance of butter in our household led to a lively conversation on ways positive PR spin can change public perception.

While I knew that Kiwi fruit were originally named ‘Chinese Gooseberries’ I recently found out the name was changed for export following the political climate in Cold War era 1950s. The name ‘Melonette’ proved no better to the buying public and the name Kiwi was reportedly proposed at a meeting in Aukland to management approval.

My son recounted how avocados used to be known as Alligator Pears but the name changed when people complained that their compotes and pies made with the odd green fruit were unpalatable. Though I couldn’t verify this with any research, it’s still a good story.

Chilean Sea Bass used to be known by the less appetizing name of Antarctic toothfish. As documented in Priceonomics content marketing site, “the story of the Chilean sea bass represents something of a formula in today’s climate of overfishing: choose a previously ignored fish, give it a more appealing name, and market it. With a little luck, a fish once tossed back as bycatch will become part of trendy $50 dinners.” The same article documents a slimehead fish rebranded as the orange roughy.

The Ugli fruit people decided to take the courageous approach of fully embracing the fruit's unappealing appearance and capitalizing on it, as there's really no disguising its wrinkled and mottled skin and bland colouring. The fact that the taste is mostly unremarkable is secondary – the in-your-face branding made it a success.

As someone from the generation who grew up believing Corinthian Leather and naugahyde came from animals, and that 'chocolatey' equated actual chocolate, we usually figured it out.

We may be suckers for a pretty face but the advertising world proved to be as important an education on the realities of life as anything we ever learned in school.

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