Eating symbols

by Rob Horning

31 July 2008


Megan McArdle linked to this paper published recently in the Journal of Consumer Research. The upshot of it is something that we all intuitively take for granted, namely that the degree to which we enjoy what we taste in food is bound up with what we think that food represents culturally. If we think vegan cookies represent righteous earth consciousness, and we are similarly righteous, those cookies are going to taste better to us, regardless whether or not they are actually vegan. (McArdle points out the opposite case, when people reject vegan food only when they know it’s vegan. I tend to fall into that camp; I don’t want to endorse that ideology at a gut level, though I have been known to eat—maybe even enjoy—a Planet Platter or two at Souen.)

Part of this is what is called the assimilation effect—our brains make food taste like what we expect it to taste like based on previous experiences. But our expectations are also a matter of ideology. To a perhaps large degree, we consume the ideas symbolized by the food, not the actually sensual qualities of it, and what we taste is affected by our feelings about those ideas. Furthermore, we may consume certain representative foods as a means of experiencing the ideas—of participating in them in lieu of thinking them through, or of deepening our attachment to them and making our believing in them feel like something. The products may no longer merely symbolize the ideas and emotions with which they are associated, but may instead stand as the gatekeepers to them—access to such emotions and ideas are controlled by access to the associated goods (e.g., you can’t be a real football fan with tickets to the games and an RV to tailgate in; you aren’t going to feel healthy unless you are eating the products associated with health in the public consciousness.)

The questions at the heart of this is what allows us to replace the sensual qualities of food with symbolic ones, and why it occurs. Here’s how the researchers put it:

individual preferences are not independent of culture (Fieldhouse 1995; Rozin 1996). If innate taste preferences were the sole driving force behind food choice, then few would persevere with unpleasant tastes such as coffee, beer, or chili peppers (Germov and Williams 1999; Matlin 1983). Rather, foods and beverages are experienced in a sociocultural context. For instance, the first time a person experiences the taste of beer, it would likely taste unpleasantly bitter. However, consuming alcohol at restaurants, pubs, nightclubs, and parties is generally considered a social experience, which provides positive reinforcement of the taste of beer itself (Germov and Williams 1999). In this way, a preference for beer is acquired through repetition that is driven socially and culturally rather than biologically. Thus, one’s evaluation of the taste of a food or beverage stems from both an objective process (in which the inherent properties of the item stimulate taste receptors and engender a positive or negative sensory experience) and a subjective process (in which society creates a particular impression of the product, to which individuals then react). This subjective process is not yet fully understood.

They posit the two forces working in unison to constitute our tastes, but it seems plausible that the objective process is being supplanted by the subjective process, that the balance is shifting. Do we instigate this subjective process as a way to derive more pleasure from food? Do we do it knowingly as a means as shoring up our place in the social hierarchy—“I’m going to be the sort of person who enjoys pinot noirs and capers”? Or are we persuaded to do it by marketing, which may be the primary force that associates the foods with ideas in the first place? (Though by no means is it the only one; the ordinary coincidences of life and various cultural traditions of course give foods resonance. But a consumer society is distinguished by the dominance of advertising discourse, by its centrality in disseminating cultural symbolism.) The authors point out, “Among other implications, the framework implies that the positioning of a brand (in terms of image) may influence marketing success as much as a product’s objective taste, because the image affects how consumers experience the taste.” That seems pretty self-evident to me. The objective taste of something has almost become an alibi for enjoying what we really want from a branded food—the opportunity to participate in the fantasies promulgated by the advertising, to belong to a group of like-minded consumers, to experience the vague feelings connected to the good, to project our identity through the brand as a symbol. Coca-Cola is like battery acid in a can, but I still find myself enjoying one now and then, despite how much it hurts my stomach. So this kind of consumption harms me physically, but am I compensated by the nebulous, hard-to-articulate psychological pleasures I get instead? Or is the psychological damage deeper, masked from me, to manifest later as an inability to access unmediated pleasure, or as an addiction to certain rituals of consumption? Once I’ve had a Coke and a smile, does it get harder to have the latter without the former?

But it may be pointless to complain about the process by which our values get bound up with what we eat. It may simply be inevitable that we express our political choices and self-concepts deliberately through what we choose to eat (the “self-congruity theory”), even though how food actually tastes is politically and culturally agnostic. This creates a crevice in which marketers can insinuate themselves.

The taste of food alone is not powerful enough to create the kind of brand allegiances that can be made profitable. But could advertising be systematically denigrating the importance of what food actually tastes like (something no amount of advertising can ultimately affect), with our consequently suppressing our ability to register sensual stimuli? I’m haunted by the notion that these symbolic ideas that have been attached to the things I consume have kept me from ever really tasting food. One of the goals of advertising as a system (as opposed to individual ads) may be to accomplish that suppression—to encourage us to distrust our own senses (make us insecure about what we experience as pleasurable) in favor of cultural messages. (Advertising’s other systemic goal, as I’ve argued many times before, is to promote a sort of free associational illogic in place of rational chains of cause and effect. These two goals seem related, perhaps reducible to the same thing.)


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