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:
- Slow down to reconnect
- Make conversation
- Keep it simple, sweetheart
- 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 www.letsfixdinner.com. 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.