by John Ryan
I swear, it seems like the first principle of marketing is to slap a coat of statistics on something, decorate it with a man-on-the-street testimonial, and voila, it becomes a trend and gets reported as news.
This occurred to me not long ago as I was reading a newspaper story about gourmet stores offering take-out food. Take-out food isn't new or particularly newsworthy, but it got the full treatment. Sales figures showed how many take-out meals were purchased in '95, and how they were up from '94. We even heard from a money manager who frequently drops by a gourmet store in his jogging gear to pick up dinner: "I'm tired of McDonald's, and really, who wants to cook anymore?" (What? we're supposed to identify with this guy?)
Then the reporter informs us that with cooking skills on the wane and families pressed for time, the take-out business is booming.
That was when I noticed it—the news was smelling very much like advertising. It was subtle, but the message wafting by was that if you feel like your cooking skills aren't honed and if you're pressed for time, take-out food is the answer.
That's the stuff of commercials: Feeling tired, run down? But it's one thing to hear a commercial offer a solution: 90 percent of doctors agree.... It's quite another when the news says that 90 percent of doctors agree on something, because what we hear or read as news slips into the pool of things we take for granted as true.
The thing is, once something makes it into the pool, it is very hard to get it out.
A few years ago pollsters reported that the number of vegetarians had nearly doubled in only seven years. Naturally, the survey was used to prop up a trend and promote products. And it made the news. Pretty soon the idea that we were all becoming vegetarian was swimming in the pool as well.
Then I stumbled onto an article by someone who had looked at the survey. He found that a lot of people calling themselves vegetarian must have been delusional—almost half of them reported eating fish or poultry every week. Some reported eating red meat at least once a week!
Turns out that the vegetarian epidemic was a myth. Interesting stories were ignored: stories such as why everybody was saying they were vegetarian or how bean counters at polling agencies could call meat eaters vegetarians. In the meantime, however, a myth—not a dangerous myth, but a myth nevertheless was paddling around the pool.
So back to the article about take-out food. Do the sales of to-go meals have any relationship with cooking skills? Maybe. But maybe we're seeing the people who bought microwave entrees switching over to take-out food.
For that matter, are cooking skills really on the wane? Maybe they are. But then again, maybe people feel that way because they haven't been able to keep up with all the fads.
All of this may seem like much ado about nothing, but it's not. We make a lot of decisions based on taken-for-granted truth. So it's annoying (at the very least) when we find that a truth we took for granted is a myth. And it's really annoying when we find out that the myth was created to sell a product.
Both chef and musician, John Ryan wrote the Just Good Food blog from 1996 through 2001.
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