Everyday Semiotics

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Packaging

Am I the only one bothered by the improper syntax on so many supermarket products?

Having worked at a newspaper that received its share of letters to the editor and press releases, I've seen so many examples of improper comma placement and unnecessary capitalization that it's nearly destroyed what little faith I had left in the efficacy of English instruction in this country today.

Receiving copy from Joe Sixpack and the area chambers of commerce is one thing; but you would assume the copywriters on staff at corporations like General Mills would have some measure of qualification. Yet they have all the same faults -- they capitalize words they shouldn't, and they never put commas where they're supposed to go.

Interviewed on "Fresh Air" a short time ago, Michael Pollan, author of "The Omnivore's Dilemma," said anecdotally that we are living in a sort of golden age of food product copywriting. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the isles of any Whole Foods Market, where every box and label tells a story. Idyllic pastoral narratives of free-range chickens and pesticide-free, chemical fertilizer-free, growth hormone-free rutabagas. Organic pageantry, in effect.

Yet while the narratives themselves may be effulgent and dramatic, the syntax leaves so much to be desired.

Take, for example, this snippet of "flavor text" from a bag of Snapea Crisps, perhaps the greatest of all healthy junk foods:

"The pea has played an important role in dietary life and culture since they dawn of recorded history, and because of its nutritional value it has great potential for our dietary lives in the future. We are expecting to see the continuing development of 'Snapea Crisps' as a delicate and tasty product which has taken advantage of the pea's original goodness, and we propose this product as a new type of snack."

This is a truly distressing arrangement of words. For the sake of readers who recognize this easily, perhaps I shouldn't belabor the point. But I can't resist.

Sentence number one is unbearably long. The comma ought to be a period. This would better compartmentalize the phrasing and also eliminate the duplication of "dietary" within the same sentence. And any good copy editor will tell you there needs to be a comma after "nutritional value."

One of my top pet peeves lately is the passive voice. Grammatical reasons aside, the passive voice inevitably makes phrases clunkier than they need to be. "We are expecting" simply doesn't read as cleanly as "We expect" would.

The rest of the second sentence is even worse, considered from a standpoint of syntactic elegance. It is written as if by a third party, not employees of the Snapea Crisp company, editorializing about the promise of this new product. It seems to say, We will be watching the Snapea Crisp's career with great interest, and urge consumers to give it a chance.

Packaging language, in this case at least, has strayed very far indeed from the concision of the advertising jingle. It’s odd that in a time when attention spans are notoriously shorter than in the past, the amount of attention necessary to hear a sales pitch has increased so much. We've gone from "Enjoy Coca-Cola" to "Frosted Flakes -- They're Grrrrreat!" to "We are expecting to see the continuing development of 'Snapea Crisp' as a delicate and tasty..."

But perhaps it shouldn't be all that surprising. With lessened attention spans comes diminished attention to detail. Perhaps it's part of the strategy to merely present a block of text -- evidence of the product's importance, at least by cursory glance, that it should merit such a lengthy narrative -- without much regard to its content, aside from the selection of nouns and adjectives that a quickly-darting eye will catch most easily. History. Nutritional. Tasty. Snack.

Just this smattering of words presents a sort of perfect descending spiral. First comes the suggestion of a rich narrative underlying the product -- history -- followed by its intrinsic value qua food -- nutritional -- then its aesthetic value qua food -- tasty -- and finally the confirmation that it is food, and not a very serious or labor-intensive type of food at that -- snack.

Redundancy, pleonasm, and poor syntax all may be cardinal sins to the grammarian; but in the world of product promotion they may be necessary evils. Take, for another example, those 23.5-ounce cans of Arizona Green Tea with Ginseng and Honey. This product, as is said on the can, is "100% All Natural," meaning, apparently, that it is more better than something only, say, 95 percent all natural. Here the redundancy is laughable. But it is also compact and direct. Redundancy is the support, a vital part of the delivery system. It appeals to the consumer who is interested in quenching his or her thirst but also in avoiding the synthetics of soda or even Gatorade. Ginseng provides another support. The drink has an ancient herbal ingredient whose functionality is obscure at best, its demonstrable effects essentially nonexistent. But nonetheless the consumer is presented with a very promising, very wholesome, product. Never mind that a glance at the ingredients reveals the presence of high fructose corn syrup.

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