25 January 2013

Smarties

This post might reflect negatively on my mother’s parenting skills, but no food has proved more formative in my development than Smarties. I was potty trained on Smarties. I sat through hair cuts with the promise of Smarties as a reward. I learned about the subtle nuances of colour because of Smarties (and as a result had the self-satisfaction of informing people that “mauve” was my favourite colour, and not just "purple").
On the left are the Smarties of my childhood. On the right are the Smarties of your child's childhood.
 But in 2009, Nestle, bowing to public pressure (I hate when corporations bow to public pressure)*, removed the artificial colouring agents. The result was devastating. First of all, they look terrible. They look like those cheap, shitty, knock-off Smarties that you would sometimes find in bulk sections of a shabby and run-down store and that your mom would buy for you because she didn’t know any better (I mean, obviously not my mum, but one of those less adept mothers who are always arguing that that the cheaper knock-off versions are the same as the real thing). But more importantly, they also taste terrible, and it turns out that the most delicious part of a Smartie was the artificial colour in the candy shell. By removing the artificial colouring from Smarties, Nestle has managed only to make Smarties taste more artificial--if only because the original Smarties established an expectation of taste which is now inevitably disappointed; they taste artificial not because they once tasted like a "natural" food but because they no longer taste like Smarties, and to continue to taste like Smarties is the only responsibility they have to the consumer. Nestle never made any attempt to sell kids or parents on the health benefits of Smarties, and as far as I know, they have never even succumbed to that pathetic marketing ploy of saying that Smarties are "part of" a balanced diet or that they are a "good source" of calcium. Smarties are, and always have been, a treat, that is to say, a deviation from your normal dietary routine.

Smarties were important to me not just because they were my favourite candy or because I was rewarded with them and through them learned to perform certain tasks or to behave in a certain way; they were important to me because they were this material item that, at the time, seemed more anchored in reality than I did. I grasped at Smarties as a means by which I might build on or understand my own identity through something tangible and stable. It wasn’t important to me whether or not other people recognized me as that kid who really liked Smarties, but it was absolutely crucial to me that I be able to recognize myself as that kid who loved Smarties more than any other kid in the entire world. They also served to imbue me with a sense of national identity because, at the time, the only identifiable difference to me between Canadians and Americans was that there were Smarties in Canada but not in the States.

The most recent Smartie advertisement I’ve seen was one in which teens showed off their talent--like playing guitar or rollerblading--and the catchphrase at the end was “show your true colours.” But the old ads with the tagline, "When I eat my Smarties, I eat the red ones last" were so much better. I loved these ads, in part because I could see myself as a deviation from what Nestle had established as the norm: I obsessively made sure that I never ate the red ones last. I was terrified that if I did eat the red ones last, I would just be like every other fool who ate the red ones last only because they had tricked themselves into thinking that this was something they truly desired or that truly defined them as a Smartie-eater. But on the other hand, this kind of ad also granted access into a community of those who did eat the red ones last. Instead of trying to celebrate a sense of belonging (and, as a result, setting up a structure of community that one could define themselves against), Smarties is now trying to insist on a sense of celebrating difference and individuality--“our colours”--which is kind of ironic given that every Smartie in the box looks is a nearly identical greyish-brown colour. Although I don't like the connection Nestle is trying to make between "true" and "natural," this advertising scheme certainly makes more sense that sticking with the old "eat the red ones last" campaign since there no long are any red ones to eat last.

I remember trying to figure out whether or not different colours of Smarties corresponded to different flavours. I knew, even at such a young age, that of course they didn't. But being able to argue that purple is the best "flavour" is a great synesthetic experience in and of itself. So many of my vivid childhood memories are tied to Smarties, and it's as if I have lost the opportunity to ever experience those memories in a sensual** way again. Up until 2009, eating Smarties always made me recall what it was I thought about and how I felt when I was little and eating Smarties. Perhaps it’s worth noting here that the definition of nostalgia isn’t just a longing for the past, but that there is pain built into that process: it’s like going home only to realise that your home is a different colour than when you left it.

*I understand that a corporation like Nestle is only concerned with selling its product. But it's the responsibility of a corporation (especially a corporation like Nestle that makes products that are not necessary) not to cater its products to the public, but to create a need or desire where one doesn't actually exist. And this is something that Nestle in the past (albeit with disastrous results) proven itself to be particularly masterful at.
**Not that I have the desire to experience toilet training specifically in a sensual way, but I am referring more to the sense of accomplishment and how that accomplishment was rewarded.

To eat Smarties was once my favourite activity

But ruining things is, for concerned parents, a natural proclivity
And now something that was one part delicious and one part aesthetic

Was said to be carcinogenic and made their children frenetic

And other arguments that were similarly pathetic.

So in a move that was justified as health sensitivity
And marketed by Smarties as snack progressivity 

(but in reality is just deplorable corporate reactivity),
They switched to the “natural” instead of the synthetic.
And although I would like to try and be apathetic,
It’s hard when Nestle isn’t even remotely apologetic.

4 comments:

  1. Please elaborate on this:

    "create a need or desire where one doesn't actually exist. And this is something that Nestle in the past (albeit with disastrous results) proven itself to be particularly masterful at.".

    Does this have anything to do with anti-breastfeeding campaigns?

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  2. Sally, do you have any comment to make about Werthers?

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    1. I have very little to say about Werthers. They certainly didn't play the same formative role in my life that Smarties did, nor did I ever have a particularly strong emotional attachment to them. I always enjoy when a bowl of them is made available to me in someone's home or in a place of business, but I don't think I would ever buy them for myself.

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