Tuesday, 4 August 2015

What Slogan Shall We Have for Lunch Today?

One of the most memorable signs I ever noticed that told me I had become accustomed to French life was the day I walked into a UK supermarket and found that it felt too clean. In French supermarkets, the radishes have dirt on them, the fish counter smells of fish, the cheese counter of cheese and, if it's my local Franprix, there's usually some oddly unidentifiable odour coming from the corner of the freezer aisle. In the UK, on the other hand, everything seems to be wrapped in plastic, hermetically sealed and displayed under overly-bright lighting on gleaming white plastic and chrome shelves. It's all lovely and shiny, but to my Frenchified eyes, it doesn't look like food anymore.

This summer, I've been struck by another phenomemon: the prevalence of food marketing. It's everywhere. Take this lunch time, for example, when I went to the store cupboard in my parents' house to look for some fruit. Sure enough, as my mum had said, there were flat peaches in there.

Six of them. Neatly packaged on a plastic tray and wrapped in a plastic cover bearing the slogan "Sweet, aromatic and easy to eat."

My Frenchified soul was practically insulted. Because why would a peach ever not be sweet? (Because it's been grown under artificial light in a greenhouse in the Netherlands, picked before it was ripe and shipped over to be sold, hard and yellow in a UK supermarket, that's why.) And "aromatic" - well if they hadn't entirely sealed it off in plastic, I might have been able to judge that for myself. And as for "easy to eat", is eating fruit really so difficult that we need the supermarket marketing companies to persuade us that it won't be a completely unbearable experience?

Food advertising does exist in France, of course. One of my favourites was the adverts on the metro for yoghurt that were around a few months ago announcing, "Prochain gargouillis dans 4 minutes," and I do have a memory of something rude involving a type of sausage. I was also amazed when I first arrived in France in 2002 at how many products aimed at children were described as being "full of sugar to give you lots of energy!" But the marketing doesn't seem to be everywhere, and it doesn't seem quite so insidious as it is in the UK.

Another thing I've noticed relates to the nature of the slogans. In France, the packaging might describe the product in a tempting way, using words like "onctueux" or "moelleux", or it might go into detail about the origins or manufacture of the product. In the UK, the wording implies much more about the consumer and his or her relationship with food. This is particulary obvious with desserts, which are nearly always "indulgent" or maybe even "sinful".

Sadly, I think this says a lot about just how broken that relationship with food is in so many cases. Because do you know what, UK food marketers? I can decide to eat a chocolate dessert as part of my reasonably healthy diet just because it tastes nice and I enjoy it. It doesn't have to be because I "deserve" it, or because I'm "indulging", or because I'm trying to fill some terrible hole in my psyche with sweet, fatty food. And I don't feel the need to go to confession, or even to the gym, to make up for it, either.

And while my lunchtime peaches were indeed "easy to eat", the experience was somewhat spoiled by the fact that I spent the whole time I was eating ranting internally about a slogan which I found very hard to swallow.