Thursday, September 08, 2011

Serving suggestions

 “Daaaad...” It’s a word that strikes fear into every father’s heart, because you just know that it’s going to be followed by one of those questions that you can’t easily answer.

“Daaaad...” said Dixon Junior many years ago as we drove round and round an unfamiliar French town, exhausted after a seven-hour drive and unable to reconcile the map the hotel had sent us with the street layout. “Daaaad... How many planets are there in the universe?”

The question has gone down in family legend, and even though we now know the answer to that one (squillions, if you’re interested) the questions keep on coming.

“Daaaad...” we had last week, “Why do food packets always say ‘Serving Suggestion’?”

Well, thereby hangs a tale.

Remember in Toy Story, when Buzz Lightyear sees a TV advert for himself, which ends with a voiceover: “Not a Flying Toy?” And remember how it makes Buzz turn from arrogance to grim self-awareness? He’s not a real Space Ranger, he can’t fly, and his only value is as a plaything.

Hubris leads to nemesis, pride comes before a fall. And so it is with food packaging.

That ham you bought from the supermarket may have dressed itself up enticingly with a pack shot of sliced tomato, crispy lettuce and a freshly baked baguette. But inside the packet (once you get the plastic film off) is the ham, the whole ham and nothing but the ham.

Even on simple packaging where they could just as easily have said “Remove from Tin and Put on Plate”, they print “Serving Suggestion”: more to make sure the content doesn’t get ideas above its station, than as a reminder to the literal-minded consumer.

But it’s a concept that could be usefully extended to other kinds of product.

Suppose you’re in the market for a new printer. (And why wouldn’t you be? It’s so much cheaper than buying replacement ink cartridges for the old one.)

Inkjet printers are all pretty much the same, and in the end your decision comes down to the box art. Which shows a proud dad and his admiring wife and children watching as cheerful family snaps and fancy-looking pie charts whizz out of the printer too fast to catch.

Boxes like that really do need a warning on them. Something like “Not A Real Family” or “Your Colours May Vary And Actually Be Restricted To Four Shades of Brown” would be a start.

Seed packets would benefit from warnings too. Readers whose memories stretch as far back as February will no doubt recall the saga of the World’s Hottest Chilli, and attempts to grow same.

There was indeed a warning on the packet: “Handle and taste with care!” But perhaps what it should say is “Handle With Utter Disdain. ”

On the packet, the Naga Jolokia peppers are red, fruity and pungent-looking. Whereas on our windowsill, they’re small, green and totally insignificant.

Because it’s the same with those chillis as it is with so many others things in life: What You See Is Definitely Not What You Get.

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