Capitalism, like most things, is good and bad (Part Three)

A case study: Mackenzie Bread

Mackenzie is brand of bread.  It’s quite nice.  It comes in brown paper bags, and is a very wide, rustic looking loaf.  When it was initially released I bought it and enjoyed it, I bought it because it looked like good bread and because I have a fondness for the Mackenzie Country.  I was naive enough to believe that the bread itself must somehow be connected with that place.  There’s a sucker born every minute.

I stopped buying Mackenzie bread because of their latest advertising campaign which made me more aware of precisely how I was being manipulated by their marketing team.  The advertising campaign had the tag line, “keep lunch special”.  Here is what they say about the campaign on their website:

At MacKenzie, we believe in lunch like it used to be. When bread was handmade, generous in size, full of abundant goodness and rewarded a well-earned and hearty appetite with a generous portion. But things have changed. When did skipping lunch or having lunch at a desk become the norm?  We believe that lunch is a tradition and that weekday lunch is being slowly eroded and marginalised by modern life and workplace pressures.  We believe everyone has a right to lunch and that you should be allowed to stop and enjoy it – unbothered by ringing phones and interruptions.

In addition to this they have advertisements in bus stops around town with pictures of sandwiches bursting at the seams with exotic fillings and tag lines such as: “lunch like it used to be“.

My first reaction to these signs was to blandly agree with their claims about lunches of the past, but after driving past the ad for a few days I recalled that I had  taken a lot of lunches to school when I was growing up, and many of them had been very nice, but that none of them had looked like the sandwich in the sign.  In fact, if you wanted a sandwich like this in New Zealand in the 1970s you probably would have needed to leave the country to get it.

This began to bother me so much that I went and looked at their website, and found the blurb that starts this post.  It annoyed me some more.  Lies about the place called “used to be” that annoy me:

  1. the bread was handmade
  2. the sandwiches were full of abundant goodness
  3. they came in a generous portion, and
  4. everyone stopped for a leisurely lunch break

This is funny, because when I was a kid I can remember that every cafeteria in New Zealand had the same sandwiches.  They were all made with thin slices of slightly curling white bread, and the fillings were either a thin slice of warm ham, a thin slice of processed cheese, or some kind of thing with egg in it.  I also seem to recall that brown bread was looked upon as some kind of slightly weird health fad – ok if you were, say, a bizarre, lesbian freak, but not ok for “real” people.

At this point you may be wondering why I am so bothered by a brand of bread and an advertising campaign.  Well, it’s personal.  

 The picture to the left is of me sitting on Mt. John looking back over the town of Tekapo in the heart of the Mackenzie Country.  This photo is actually quite strange because I am not wearing glasses.  The fact that I am sitting on a mountain admiring the view but that I am not wearing glasses tends to suggest that I am being a bit of a poseur in this picture.  Perhaps I had been watching too many Bon Jovi videos of dudes with long hair and jeans standing on the edges of canyons.  Whatever, I love the Mackenzie Country and I have been going there since I was a kid, and my mother and father were going there for skiing holidays before I was even thought about.

I suppose the main thing I like about that landscape is its feeling of vast emptiness.  The plains and the hills are all stubbled shades of brown with cloud shadows drifting across them, and mountains pitching up at the edges.  It is not a comfortable feeling being there.  Because of this sense of scale and grand indifference to man I think it is a spiritual landscape.  I know how silly that sounds, but there is a fairly long tradition of associating the spiritual with arid or barren places, and I feel that the landscape of the Mackenzie country fits with that tradition.  It is, therefore, very hard to imagine someone wanting to build huge cattle sheds in the middle of that place as has recently been proposed.  However it was a lot easier for me to be sucked in by a marketing campaign that associates a bread product with the high country farms in the area.

Baked in the "spirit" of the high country

Putting aside the current campaign to make us buy bread, here is the general pitch for the product:

MacKenzie High Country Bread is baked in the spirit and traditions of high country New Zealand.  A legacy forged in the most remote parts of the country.  There, bread was handmade, took time, was generous in size and full of abundant goodness. 

The weird thing about this kind of nostalgia for the “authentic” manly past of New Zealand is that it seems to be directed at white collar, office workers with fancy degrees.  Check out the language in the blurb from the top of the page: the “weekday lunch is being slowly eroded and marginalised by modern life and workplace pressures”.  Eroded and marginalised?  Sounds like the language of the farm to me.

Should you wish to tell the people who make this bread how wonderful they are you will need to contact Goodman Fielder.  I believe that this is an Australian company.  Probably someone told the guys in the Auckland Head Office to come up with a product that would make New Zealanders feel some kind of affinity to this company’s bread.

What else does this company make? They are responsible for Edmonds, Irvines, Champion, Quality Bakers, Meadow Lea, Olivani, Diamond, Ernest Adams, Tararua, Meadow Fresh, Puhoi Cheese, Kiwi Meats and Huttons (among others).  Which makes you realise that the idea that capitalism presents the consumer with choice based on healthy competition between competing companies is really not much more than an idea.  Especially when you consider that a company as big as Goodman Fielder has itself been bought up, broken up, and sold back to itself quite a few times in the last twenty years.  Uncle Tobys snack range for example used to be owned by Goodman Fielder, but was sold to Nestle, and then to Pepsico.

So what?  Firstly, it’s not competition.  Competition is a talismanic word of the right.  It makes everyting better.  If we consider that the baking products of Ernest Adams, or Edmonds, or Irvines or Champion are all from the same company then genuine choice appears to be illusory.  Secondly, the marketing campaigns these companies run are much more of a lie than they appear on the surface.  That’s fine.  I get that advertising is the art of creating false emotional attachments, but that these false emotional attachments are deliberately developed towards commodities without meaning (it’s just industrial quantities of dough mass baked into bread, not hand made bread from the farm kitchen) that are bought and sold by conglomerates who don’t give a monkeys seems grossly wrong somehow.  Especially when it is manipulating personal spaces in your own heart and memory.

I said it was personal.  Advertisers like to make it personal.  There was a book released by Saatchi and Saatchi last year called Love Marks and it was all about creating love between a consumer and a brand.  It is a book that:

shows how Mystery, Sensuality and Intimacy can be used to track the secrets of success that create the ultimate shopping experiences.

If we change the love metaphor to one of lust, I think this works.  Advertising seeks to incite the lust to spend and accumulate within us.  It tries to push buttons.  Mackenzie bread has certainly pushed mine.

Capitalism, like most things, is good and bad (Part Four)

Occasionally you get a trivia question in a New Zealand history quiz that goes something like this: “What significant event in New Zealand history occurred in February 1882?”  The answer is that the ship Dunedin left Otago with New Zealand’s first shipment of refrigerated meat.  When I first heard this answer I sort of shrugged and thought “so what?” but when you think about it even a little bit it’s pretty clear how refrigeration changed New Zealand’s capacity to earn money.  Refrigeration’s ability to create export dollars for New Zealand meant that all New Zealanders would one day be able to afford refrigerators (if you follow me).  In economic history then February 1882 is often heralded as a pivotal moment that sent New Zealand down the road towards prosperity.

Over the last few years there have been a few bumps along that road.  For one thing, talking about something called food miles has become fashionable.  Like most serious ideas that become a consumer fashion the bit that makes it into supermarket advertising is a very simplistic version of a complicated calculation.  At its simplest level food miles is a matter of figuring out how far an item of food has travelled and by what mode of transport to get from its point of origin to the local shop shelf.  The idea being that flying food in jet planes from the other side of the world is a lot worse for the environment than putting it on the back of a truck and driving it down the road from the local farm.  More sophisticated calculations also consider how much energy it cost to produce and package the food.

Naturally for a country like New Zealand all of this food mile talk is not good.  As we happen to be on the opposite side of the world from where all the people with money live we tend to sail all of our food exports a very long way to market.  Sometimes we fly them to market which is even worse.  Naturally in the science of marketing New Zealand has found a nuance in the food miles argument that it can massage.  We are told that New Zealand’s method of farming cows and sheep in open pasture is far less wasteful and harmful to the environment than the European method of barn farming their livestock.  If you factor this into food mile calculations then it is still better for a shopper in London to reach for New Zealand lamb than Welsh.

When I heard this argument I mostly accepted it, but not entirely.  After all, what this research tells us really is that the Europeans should make their farming practices less energy intensive, and less environmentally harmful, not that it’s a good idea for countries like New Zealand to send its produce to the other side of the world.  It’s a bit like being told your racism is ok, because the other country’s racism is a lot worse (actually, I think we did tell ourselves this in 1981); you’re still doing something bad.  Then again, given that Europeans are unlikely to change their farming methods, and that I would prefer that New Zealand continue to earn money from exports rather than be cast into the dark ages, we had better keep sending our stuff overseas.

The problem is that over the last few weeks there have been a series of stories that have increased my sense of unease.  The first of these stories reported that someone wants to barn farm cows in the Mackenzie country for the stated reason that it would be more economical and less environmentally harmful to do this.  Defending the idea from the outraged we hear a representative from Federated Farmers telling us that barn farming is a widely used practise in Europe.  I’m sure it is, in fact wasn’t it this style of farming that meant it was still ok for Europeans to buy New Zealand meat because we didn’t raise our livestock that way?  Which would surely mean that barn farming in New Zealand would remove our main defence in the food miles prosecution.

The next story to pop up on the horizon got me thinking that perhaps we were trying to defend the indefensible anyway.  A 2006 report suggested that:

  • Livestock accounted for 18% of greenhouse gas emissions which placed it above transport emissions
  • 26% of the Earth’s land surface is used for grazing (not including land used to grow feed crops to feed animals)
  • 8% of the world’s water goes to giving these animals a drink
  • 20% of the animal biomass is livestock reducing bio diversity
  • Rising demand for livestock products is leading to increasing deforestation
  • Animal waste is highly polluting

Apparently aware of these concerns the Copenhagen conference organisers have responded:

For example, beef is less available than chicken or lamb at the conference center’s cafeterias because beef production results in higher greenhouse gas emissions, Olling says. The same is true of bottled water, he says. 

USA Today

 I seem to remember something dubbed the FART tax being utterly vilified a few years ago, and manure and tractors at Parliament.  Looking back at this now it seems a bit like studying the Church putting Galileo in prison; you end up thinking: “How could they have been so blinkered?”  Mind you, as it was mainly reported as an amusing political stunt I seem to remember that I didn’t really care at the time.

Which brings us to the third and final story that came out recently:

17,000 people are attending the Copenhagen climate change conference, and they mostly came by plane.  This equates to 40,500 tonnes of emitted carbon dioxide.  The country of Morocco produced the same amount in 2006.

 Like me you are probably w(e)ary of statistics.  The adage about lies and statistics is certainly true, but without the statistics the short version of the stories above are:

  1. It’s wasteful to make food on one side of the planet and sail it to the other side (past lots of people who don’t have much food)
  2. You can play games with the figures and factor in how the food is made and all that but it is still pretty damn wasteful
  3. Endless demand for meat creates all kinds of other problems like pollution, and wasted water, and chopping down too many trees, and reducing living space for other animals
  4. Having an enormous international meeting is going to create a lot of rubbish and a lot of pollution.  If the meeting is about reducing waste and pollution then this is fairly ironic.  Journalists like irony.

 Last night I cooked a BBQ for some friends visiting from Japan.  Looking at the dazzling selection of slaughtered beasts sizzling away before me I thought: when did simple things that were good begin to get this hard?