Starbucks wants you to pollute the planet to help get clean water to people around the world, 5 cents at a time.

The other day I walked into one of the Starbucks on the Upper West side of Manhattan disconcerted and ashamed.  Disconcerted, because the Internet in the apartment I was renting for a two-week working vacation was on the fritz, the owner was nowhere to be found and I had to send email documents to my office and some clients.  Ashamed, because I had vowed never to enter a Starbucks again since learning that it does not prohibit the carrying of handguns on its private property in those states that allow people to carry concealed or unconcealed weapons in public. 

But desperate times call for desperate measures.

And then I saw a bin near the cash register overflowing with clear plastic bottles filled with water.  Starbucks, which owns the company that packages the water, calls it Ethos, and in buying it the drinker is supposed to be “helping children get cleaner water.” 

As I understand it, when you buy a bottle of Ethos for $1.85 in this particular Starbucks, (and probably in most others since the essence of all fast food franchises such as Starbucks is standardization), Starbucks/Ethos puts 5 cents, about 2.7% of the purchase price, into a fund that provides grants to international water projects that help children all around the world. 

The very elegant Ethos website makes an exquisite use of soft watery colors and fluid movement (but using web software that makes it impossible to cut and paste copy).  On it you can find water facts, some very general information about where the five cents goes, information about 2010 World Water Day and, of course, information about the Ethos line of products, which meet the need for a “convenient source of portable water.” 

What a scam! Its Bernie Madoff meets a modernized old-fashion seltzer water, but instead of a two-cents plain, it’s a five-cent rip-off!

The water and cheap plastic bottle that contain it are a very small part of the cost of the Ethos portable water product, so Starbucks is minting money on this charitable venture.  Shame on Starbucks for perpetrating this affinity marketing campaign on a public that has grown to like effortless charitable gestures!  The coffee purveyor makes millions in exorbitant profit while producing millions of bottles that will end up in landfills.

And to those whose purchases of Ethos products has swelled the Ethos fund to $6.2 million, five cents at a time, consider taking these three simple steps:

  1. Contribute the whole two bucks (with tax) directly to water projects. 
  2. Buy a stainless steel water bottle, a thermos or a bottle made of a high-quality washable plastic.
  3. Fill your reusable bottle with water from the tap or from your home-filtered water system (could be built-in, be Brita or a delivery service). 

Now you’re good to go!

As usual, when an ad imagines an offbeat consumer, it’s usually an enormous target market.

Last week I analyzed the solipsistic qualities of a billboard ad for eating peanuts by the National Peanut Board in which the protagonist (main character in a fiction) prefers speaking to his dog.  As usual, when a company creates a character through an offbeat or weird trait, it is talking to a large, if sometimes previously unexplored target market.

In this case, the target market comprises those lonely millions whose best or only friend and closest confidant is a pet—that is, a subservient living thing habiting under its rule.

Yesterday, the Associated Press announced the results a recent poll it conducted in conjunction with that reveals that one third of all pet-owning married women believe that pets are better listeners than their husbands.  

Funny that the Peanut Board used a man in the marketing campaign, whereas the survey showed that a mere 18% of all married men with pets prefer to talk to the animal than their better halves.

Don’t these people realize that their little pooches, kitties, tweety-birds and turtles may not understand anything they are saying, or only understand the emotional component as it relates to food, shelter and avoiding corporal punishment?

Interesting to note, while Sue Manning, writer of the AP story, sprinkles it with case histories of these misogynists and man-haters, the one photo that appears on the website version of the story is an obese North Carolina woman with her big dog.  AP, like most news media, is making visual concessions to the rapidly growing number of rapidly growing Americans.

The more interesting discussion, I think, is why Associated Press participated in conducting this poll, which does nothing more than to titillate the gossip genes of those whose community extends primarily into online, broadcast and print media.  

But think of this: Once completed and analyzed, the story is obviously newsworthy because the media dedicates a large amount of space to trivial pop psychology stories. This one has the added blandishment of a kind of genial “man bites dog” undertone.  In other words, instead of covering more breaking news or providing more accurate and in-depth coverage to key issues such as health care, immigration and financial reform, the AP has created its own bon-bon of pop triviality that it can offer to a factoid hungry readership.

Why did NPR include Merle Haggard’s uninformed opinion on the new healthcare law in its feature on his life and music?

Yesterday, National Public Radio ran a fairly longlong feature on country-and-western performer Merle Haggard, who has recovered from lung cancer and recently released a new set of recorded material.

The story took the standard format of cutting back and forth between a conversation with Haggard and samples of the new material.  Here are the topics of the conversational segments between the music (and I may have them slightly out of order).  Consider this list an SAT test question—which one does not belong?:

  • His bout with lung cancer
  • His music
  • His view that the new health care law is bad
  • His life
  • His new album

What is Haggard’s opinion on healthcare legislation that has already passed doing in a feature about his life and music?  While it is true that Haggard, an Obama supporter in the last election, wishes the president well in the same segment, it is so out of place as to beg the question, why did the reporter and editor choose to include this material from what was probably an interview with Haggard that lasted more than an hour before editing?

In the NPR story, Haggard says, “I’m not sure we can ask people to pay for it,” which sounds like what some rich folk say when they don’t want to help fellow citizens in need.  It also reflects Haggard’s ignorance of what is in the actual law.

I don’t condemn Haggard for making his views known, no matter how uninformed they are.  He’s entitled to his opinion, like all of us.

But I’m wondering what NPR’s hidden agenda is?  I’ve heard these pop culture stories on NPR for years and they almost always stick to the bio and the music.  When they do broach issues of politics it’s because that’s the focus of the entire story.  In this case, however, the reference seems gratuitous and out of place.  Note that by injecting this anti-healthcare comment in a story on an entertainer, NPR relieves itself of its journalistic responsibility to tell both sides.

This injection of more ignorance on a pressing issue into what was otherwise a soft entertainment feature seems to be part of what I see as an effort by all the mainstream news media to help the Republicans in the mid-term elections.  I’m not saying that the media is working together, only that they are slavishly following the lead of the ultra-right media, as usual.

If you really want to help the Earth on Earth Day, you won’t buy any Earth Day memorabilia.

The headline in today’s article on the first page of the business section of The New York Times says it all, “On 40th Anniversary, Earth Day Is Big Business.

The article, by Leslie Kaufman, does a good job of showing how Earth Day has become a platform for businesses to sell “a variety of goods and services, like office products, Greek yogurt and eco-dentistry.”  The article goes on to give more examples of Earth Day products, including a tour of green spots by the Gray Line bus tour company and a plush toy made of soy fibers at F.A.O. Schwartz.  Meanwhile other companies are wrapping themselves in the Earth Day banner, such as Pepsi which is using the day to introduce kiosks for returning beverage containers.  To her credit, Kaufman points out that “a fair portion of the more than 200 billion beverage containers produced in the United States each year are filled with Pepsi products.” 

I wonder if Hallmark has come out with Earth Day cards.

All sarcasm aside, it does seem as if to a great degree Earth Day has become like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, Administrative Assistant’s Day and most other U.S. holidays—an excuse to buy things.  In the days when I was a student radical, we called it co-optation by the establishment.

This emerging approach to Earth Day reflects the principle that is probably the most important core belief of our ideology: that the way to express any emotion or belief is to buy something:

  • We buy something to show our mothers we love them.
  • We buy something to celebrate what are supposed to be religious holidays.
  • We buy something to remind us we have been someplace on vacation (as if our memories, a note in a journal or a used ticket were not enough).
  • We buy something to inform those close to us of the vacation we just took.
  • We buy something, like a tee-shirt or a mug, to tell the world what we believe.
  • We even buy something when making many contributions, for example when we contribute to a public radio station during a pledge drive or attend a charity ball. 

Now it takes materials and energy to make these things, and even more energy to deliver them.  The result, besides that nice warm feeling that dedicated consumers get when engaged in the commercial transaction, is a whole lot more carbon spewed into the environment, a whole lot more use of nonrenewable resources and eventually a whole lot of junk in landfills.

This commercialization of all sentiment and expression is the major cause of the waste that is choking the planet and engendering rapid change in weather patterns.  Some would say that this potlatch of consumption is what drives our economy but I would answer that with an adequate social services net to catch the victims of economic transformation (much like we had in the 50s, 60s and 70s), we could readily make the transition to a less wasteful society.

I want to close by offering some advice to my readers who want to do something to celebrate Earth Day:

  • Don’t buy anything you don’t need just to have a commemorative of the celebration.
  • Instead of buying something for which the proceeds or part of the proceeds go to an environmental or any other cause, just give the money to the organization and don’t take the gift.
  • In the future, before buying something that has green aspects, e.g., made of recyclable materials, ask yourself if you really need it.
  • Look for one or two things you can do to help the environment such as taking public transportation, bringing reusable cloth bags to carry home purchases, never using the air conditioner or shutting off lights when you leave the room.

If world history reflected the view of the PR profession, it might start with Napolean’s invasion of Russia.

Even since I became a marketing communications professional about 25 years ago, one of my pet peeves is the accepted view that the history of public relations begins with the late 19th century impresario P. T. Barnum (you know the one who said that there’s a sucker born every minute) and Edward Bernays, owner of a PR agency in the 1920’s.  The idea that PR starts with these two is taught in PR text books and is the “right answer” on the test to become accredited, which is the Public Relations Society of America’s unenforceable certification process.

This view is just wrong, wrong, wrong!

Public relations is the use of third parties to endorse the message that an individual or organization wants to make.  That message usually involves selling a product or an idea, or raising the esteem in which an organization or individual is held by society or a segment of society.  For example, instead of placing an ad in magazines about a new technology, a public relations professional would try to attract coverage by news organizations (the third party endorser). 

Let me share with you some examples of public relations that predate the “B Boys,” Barnum and Bernays:

  • After using foreign troops to conquer the armies of his own people and then sending his best general on what amounted to a suicide mission, the ancient Israeli King David cavorted lasciviously in the streets with the general’s wife, Bathsheba.  To address his image problem, he hired some writers to compose the Psalms (unless you are naïve enough to believe that an uneducated shepherd who had been a soldier from his teens was also one of the greatest writers of ancient Hebrew).
  • When the Roman Emperor Octavius (Augustus) was trying to consolidate his power after defeating Mark Anthony and Cleopatra for control of the Roman world, his factotum Maecenas established an informal ancient PR agency that spewed out written material that praised and glorified both Octavius and the Roman state, kind of like a political candidate who symbolically wraps himself in a flag with jingoistic cant.  The best known work to come out of Maecenas’ efforts was The Aeniad by Virgil, still considered by many (not me) to be one of the greatest works of literature.
  • The earliest English lords in Ireland would pay Irish poets to write verses in praise of themselves and their rule.  The idea was to legitimize the political and economic domination of the emerald island of these interlopers.

One of the techniques of contemporary PR is to stage a special event like a marathon, the world’s largest pizza, a march on Washington, a national “Turn off the lights” or “Stop smoking” day, or even an elephant using its trunk to paint a canvas with on a bridge overlooking Niagara Falls.  The special event both draws the attention of the public and serves as a platform for making a message or enhancing a reputation. 

Now what could be a more dazzling special event than the spectacular coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor by the Pope in 800 of the Common Era.  The message was that Charles was in charge, but that his authority derived from and was dependent upon the Catholic Church.  Charlemagne’s coronation has all the elements of a special event: a spectacle that attracted attention, a clear message and a third-party endorsement.

My own personal view is that the most important principle of effective PR writing was laid out by the Roman poet Horace in his The Poetic Arts (Ars Poetica), when he says. “begin in the middle (“in media res” in the Latin).

By cutting out all history before the late 19th century, the PR profession and university PR departments sacrifice a serious source of ideas and give PR professional a distorted view of how PR fits into society.  It’s as if a study of military tactics started with General Pershing or a study of religion started with Aimee Semple McPherson.  Or how about a history of the world that starts with the defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo.  I think the PR profession starts its history so late because it wants to distinguish itself from propaganda, but in fact, PR is a form of propaganda.

If I were running a university PR program, I would make the students study nothing but the great world literature and literary criticism that began as PR ventures for the first three years. 

National Peanut Board uses the solipsistic Reagan ideology to sell peanuts to New York City subway riders.

While in Manhattan for two weeks on a working vacation, I’ve been taking advantage of the greatest mass transit system in the United States, the New York City subway—dingy with age, but clean, inexpensive, extremely safe and it gets you where you want to go faster than any alternative transportation option in the city.

This past weekend in a train on the East Side, I saw a fascinating billboard that exemplifies how Reagan’s politics of selfishness has completely imbued much of our public discourse.

The billboard, from the National Peanut Board, has as its theme line and branding message, “Get the energy” or “Have the energy.”  Here is how the National Peanut Board describes itself on its website: The National Peanut Board represents all USA peanut farmers and their families. Through research and marketing initiatives the Board is finding new ways to enhance production and increase consumer demand by promoting the great taste, nutrition and culinary versatility of USA-grown peanuts.

The National Peanut Board is obviously trying to say that peanuts are an “energy” food, and on one level may play off the current fad for energy drinks.  (But remember this: peanuts are good; energy drinks should be avoided at all costs!).  On the website , we learn that the slogan for the national campaign is “Energy for the Good Life.”

This particular ad has a large headline that read: “Energy to spend time with someone who will listen to you.”

And what image does the peanut board use to exemplify this message?  It’s a photo of a man with his dog on a hill overlooking a beautiful view.

There are two ways to interpret this collision of words with imagery, and both convey a solipsistic message that I believe is a variation of the Reaganistic ideology that tells us the world is a better place if every seeks his or her self-interest and that we should look for private solutions to address problems.  Solipsism, by the way, is the philosophy that the world begins and ends with the self, or, put another way, that the only thing any one can be sure really exists is one’s own mind.

 Here are my two interpretations of the imagery:

  • Your dog is the only person who really listens to you
  • God, represented by nature as it often has been in painting and literature through the centuries, is the only one who really listens to you. 

I think it’s easy to see that if your dog is the only one who listens to you, then you’re living in a society in which all humans care only about themselves and act only in their own self interest, to the exclusion of all other family or social concerns; in other words, Reaganism taken to its extreme.  The dog is cute, but the internal logic of the ad is brutal: No one listens to you; no one cares about you; you’re in this world by yourself; you might as well just act in your own self-interest, because no one else is going to help you and you shouldn’t help anyone else. 

Even if the Peanut Board is subtly trying to make a religious message, the analysis remains the same.  The god in the ad, if there is one, is not one that provides moral guidance, nor one that exemplifies service to others.  No, what this god does is listen to you.  You get to talk to this god and tell him what’s on your mind (that is, of course, if you have eaten enough peanuts to have the energy to talk!).

I wonder if the Peanut Board realizes that the ideological message underlying its attempt to sell peanuts is that no one should care about anyone else, since no one else ever listens.

Too much religion in the armed forces may make people think their god condones killing the enemy.

In the current New York Review of Books, dated April 29, 2010, Eyal Press analyzes three books and one study about the growing religiosity of Israeli soldiers and the growing militarization of Israeli society.  I recommend the article highly, and in fact, recommend that all my readers check out The New York Review of Books. Besides presenting reasoned views, slightly left of center, on the politics and economic issues of the day, it is a great way to keep up with what’s happening in virtually every field of research.  The writing is always impeccable.

As Press details, the Israeli military, especially the Special Forces, has become increasingly religious.  Maybe a quarter of all soldiers now wear yarmulkes all the time. One fact on which Press lingers really sent shivers through me: That a large number of Israeli soldiers would refuse to obey orders to block right-wing activists or shut down illegal settlements. 

I thought immediately of the way that fundamentalist Protestant Christianity has overrun the U.S. Air Force, which has been well-documented in many articles in recent years.  Some examples from the last time the Christianization of the Air Force was a major story, a few years back:

Of course, when most of us connect religion and war, I’m guessing that fundamentalist Islam comes to mind.

Now I have no objection to religion or to religious people.  But it does bother me to see an increase in religiosity among soldiers.

Annual Parade Magazine survey of what people earn show the great and growing disparity of wealth.

I love to read the annual survey in Parade Magazine of what people earn in their jobs.  I always do an informal count of the various salary levels to illustrate what I know from demographic studies to be true: that over the past 30 years, the middle class has shrunk and we’ve seen a much greater polarization of wealth in the United States.  In other words, we’re becoming a nation of rich and poor.

Parade conveniently gives us the salaries of 101 real people in a range of occupations.  If we break the salaries into broad groups, the number of people in each group is almost equal to that group’s percentage of the total. 

Here are the numbers:

Annual Income:  Number of People in Parade Survey
Under $25,000: 22
$25,000-$49,999: 28
$50,000-$100,000: 22
$100,000-$250,000: 12
$250,000-$500,000: 1
$500,000-$1 million: 1
$1 million-$5 million: 3
More than $5 million: 12

We don’t have to dig very far into these numbers to see that most people don’t make that much money anymore.  Some things to note:

  • Half of all people in the Parade survey make less than $50,000 a year.
  • If we still had a large middle class—you know, people who can afford to have two children with their summer camps, lessons, youth sports, college and graduate school, plus annual vacations, two cars, a nice home and a retirement portfolio—the Parade survey would include many more people making from $50,000-$250,000 (really, more than $100,000). 
  • A line or bar graph of these salaries would resemble a barbell, which means that it’s skinny in the middle and fat on both ends, although in this case, much fatter on the poor end than the rich one.  This formation highly suggests that we have a fairly extreme polarization of wealth.  (Unless you are prepared to state that an annual income of under $25,000 isn’t poverty level.)

You might be interested to note that the 12 who make exorbitant incomes of more than $5 million a year include 1 athlete, 2 singers, 3 talk show hosts, 1 movie director, 2 actors, 1 writer of popular fiction and 2 CEOs of large companies.

There are caveats to this study, which looks at 101 people selected to represent diversity of profession and geography.  While it is suggestive, it is far from statistically valid. Also note that income is not wealth.  You could be so rich that you don’t need to work or are able to work in a low-paying job that you love.  It’s a hypothetical conjecture, though, because people with money who work tend to want to have high-status, high-income jobs, and have the wherewithal to get the education and make the contacts necessary to get them.

Nonetheless, it’s interesting to see a microcosm of what most people make, or perhaps I should say, don’t make.

Why is the Times allowing reporters to plug their own books in articles? Perhaps it’s in lieu of salary?

A few weeks back, I wrote about a Louis Harris Interactive survey that was introduced to the world in a Daily Beast column in which the author essentially used the announcement of the survey results as a platform for explicitly shilling one of his books. 

At the time, I thought to myself, “Reporters for online media, what do they know about journalistic ethics?” and focused on how odd that Louis Harris would allow itself to be used so cynically, just to get its survey featured in this beast of an Internet newspaper.

But now I’m concerned!  This unethical and self-serving blurring of news and advertising has invaded the hallowed (and now frequently hollowed) Sunday New York Times.  It’s in Tim Wendel’s 11-paragraph story on page two of the sports section in yesterday’s national edition.  After posing the question of who threw the fastest pitch of all times, mentioning that he has interviewed a lot of baseball lifers on the issue and trotting out the usual suspects like Koufax, Grove, Walter Johnson and Gibson, he closes with: “There is no definitive answer, but I think I came up with a pretty good one.  It’s right there in my book, ‘High Heat.’”

Now that’s a direct approach…and as crude as Ralph Cramden in a locker room…and with ethics emanating the scent of “Eau de Madoff.”

Can you believe that the editors of the Times let Wendel get away with transforming an entire article into a marketing piece for his book?  As shameless as Wendel is for making such a naked plug, the Times should be ashamed for allowing it.  Do you think maybe it’s a new policy, maybe, in lieu of getting raises, reporters get to promote their own books?

(Note that the story never was put into the online edition, perhaps because someone realized how egregiously self serving it is.)

Wendel had so many other ways to promote his book without trying to pass off as journalism what many PR professionals would call a “promotional backgrounder.”  For example, he could:

  • Write a piece that tells one story from the book, features one pitcher or settles one small question and at the end of the article and a few asterisks, have a sentence citing the book as the source.
  • Put the piece I outlined in the bullet just above into the “Week in Review” section or the Op/Ed page.
  • Ask a sports columnist to review the book.

The approach he took doesn’t represent a new form of journalism, because the marriage of public relations and journalism is consummated every day in entertainment, lifestyle, health, business and sports sections.  But usually journalists write these hybrid articles following the strict ethical standards of news reporting.  Wendel has not.

I want to close this entry with a quick lesson in propaganda.  In my description of Wendel’s article I practiced the technique of selective listing.  I’m a bit of a baseball buff and the pitchers I mentioned from Wendel’s article are, I believe, the greatest pitchers of all time not named Seaver.  But I did not list Nolan Ryan or Bob Feller, even though Wendel spends the best part of his article talking about these two flamethrowers.  I think both are among the most overrated athletes of all time, precisely because fans tend to overvalue strikeouts.  But getting a lot of strikeouts doesn’t make them great pitchers, because you also have to avoid giving up all those walks and late inning blasts.  So I left them off my list to promote in a subtle way my special agenda, and waited until now to tell you to illustrate the rhetorical trick.  But by doing so, I distorted Wendel’s argument, although not in a way that unfairly advanced my own.  Selection, especially selection of experts, is an excellent technique for shaping how the public perceives an issue, because it limits the choices to those preselected by the writer, or whoever is paying the writer.

In Stouffer’s post-modern America, you don’t eat because you’re hungry, but to have a relationship with your spouse.

My entry into frozen food giant Stouffer’s “Let’s Fix Dinner” marketing campaign came via a two-page, full-color ad in  AARP Magazine, the bimonthly slick lifestyle magazine of the American Association of Retired People, which claims to have the largest circulation of any magazine in the entire world.  So before taking a look at why “Let’s Fix Dinner” is a  prime example of the commercialization of relationships in contemporary society, I want to first describe the ad, which is the sizzle to the sizzle, that is, the whistle-buzzer that makes us notice the twisted messaging that is supposed to entice us to buy the product.

The right page of this two-page ad is a sexy pose of an overweight couple in their 40s, fully dressed in front of an abstract aquamarine background, but looking like they’re about to take off their clothes and do it, except she’s wearing an oven mitt.  The “VH1 pop-up video” style headline is “Are oven mitts the key to a successful relationship?” followed by a smaller headline in another typeface and different pop-up balloon, “Dinner is a great time for couples to reconnect, and catch up with each other face to face.”  At the bottom of the page is a short paragraph that starts “Amazing the difference a real meal can make,” then proceeds to sell Stouffer’s frozen “Mac & Cheese.”  The most striking thing about the ad is the carnality in the expressions of these two truly chunky people.

In the left hand ad, Stouffer’s takes a more conventional approach to advertising prepared food:  It’s a very copy-heavy ad with a photo in the top third of another middle-aged couple—very fit, light-skinned African-Americans—in the kitchen embracing while she handles a pair of tongs.  The rest of the ad is brimming with words, including four paragraphs about the four steps to connecting with your partner.  Here are the headlines for each step:

  1. Slow down to reconnect
  2. Make conversation
  3. Keep it simple, sweetheart
  4. Join the Stouffer’s challenge

“Keep it simple,” of course, means buy Stouffer’s “solutions for delicious, nutritious meals without the fuss.”  The challenge is to make a personal commitment to have dinner with your spouse more often.  For help in meeting this commitment, Stouffer’s sends you to  This left-side full-page ad also crowds in small photos of the frozen lasagna and the ever-popular, ever-chic macaroni & cheese.  As the ad says, “Add a little candlelight and you’ve got a romantic meal for two.”

While the two-page ad focuses on the romantic needs of the empty-nester, the website really is for families with children.  It is a very infotaining website, i.e., it mixes information and entertainment in a light-hearted, happy kind of way.  Among the whistles and buzzers are pages of factoids; features on real families in a kind of “reality” webcasting; a survey to take; and of course product information.  There is also a page to sign-up for the Stouffer’s “Let’s Fix Dinner” Challenge.  Once you’re signed up, you get points and entries into a sweepstakes every time you record another dinner that the entire family had together.  Last time I was on the website, it stated on the homepage that people in the challenge have reported making 98,974 family dinners.

The home page is very easy on the eyes:  the centerpiece is a rotating wide-screen box that consists of a happy image of a family or family member and three pop-up balloons, in which there are three pieces of highly structured copy, as we will see in this example:

  • Balloon #1/A provocative statement: “Can placemats keep your kids off drugs?”
  • Balloon #2/A factoid: “Studies show that teens in families that have dinner together five times a week are 45% less likely to drink and 66% less likely to take drugs.”
  • Balloon #3/A squib of real-life conversation from one of the “real” families featured on the website: “‘Okay, I’m resolving to clear all my stuff off the dining room table so we can actually use it!’  Sarah, San Diego, CA”

There are five of these billboards that rotate onto the home page, one after the other. Four of them focus on families with children.  The empty nester one features a photo of the chubby but horny couple from the AARP Magazine ad.

Stouffer’s and its advertising mavens and mavessess put a lot of work into creating a marketing campaign and website in which every detail down to the last factoid and image focuses on making the message.

And what’s the message?  That Stouffer’s frozen dinners are delicious? No.

That Stouffer’s meals are nutritious? No. 

That these food products can contribute to a healthy weight-loss program? No. 

That Stouffer’s gives you a way to feed a family cheaply? Again, no.

That Stouffer’s is a fast way to chow down? Not exactly.

No, in fact, the central message is not about food at all.  It’s about the benefits of the family eating dinner together (something that my always busy family did about six nights a week, both when I was a child and a father).  The way that Stouffer’s facilitates this togetherness is pretty much unexplained.  It’s taken for granted that the post-modern 21st century consumer knows the product-related benefits of frozen dinners, (which in the old days used to be called TV dinners because they were used to bring the family together for the Ed Sullivan  and Dinah Shore shows).

Once again, the U.S. people face an urgent social problem, or in this case a knot of related social problems that include the transmission of basic middle class values, school performance, teenaged substance abuse and conjugal sex.  And once again, U.S. industry and commerce come up with an answer. 

And it’s always the same answer: Buy something.

Beneath Stouffer’s sophisticated attempt to attach the values of family life and interfamilial relationships to its frozen dinners is the basic ideological subtext that a commercial transaction will solve your problem, whatever it is.  And it’s so simple!  You don’t have to spend any time together chopping meat or sautéing vegetables.  No need to even boil water.  Just pop it in the microwave and serve, with candles or hip-hop music or maybe both.   

And therein lies the significance of featuring macaroni and cheese so prominently.  Mac & cheese represents the epitome of comfort food that makes us feel nice and warm inside about family life.  It is also about the easiest meal there is to make from scratch.   But it does require boiling water, chopping cheese and measuring out some milk.  And those things can be great distractions when you’re trying to work on a family relationship.  But Stouffer’s makes it even easier than making mac & cheese from scratch.  All you do is pop it in the microwave.  And now you’ve got food preparation out of the way, that’s the hard part.  The rest of building strong family relationships will be easy, because you’ve done all the hard work already – you’ve bought something.