Chips and a pinch of salt

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Finding topics or hooks for a column like this is no great problem provided you stay in touch.

Take an extended holiday and you lack the stimulus of a working environment. What replaces it in my case, here in the Loire Valley, are two of my favourite holiday activities, shopping and reading.

They coincide when you study packaging. Does the pack make sense? Are instructions clear? Are the icons truly international? How much of the text is necessary, useful, and relevant? Is it information? Communication scientists define information as “anything that reduces uncertainty”.

Judging from my holiday reading, French packaging can betray a textual overload which actually adds to the uncertainty. More is less.

Croky, Frito Lay markets a crisp in Belgium and France branded Chips à l’Ancienne. The tradition is conveyed by the on-pack illustration of an elderly craftsman, spectacled, aproned, with a pencil behind his ear, lavishing care on the product.

Now the average punter will not suppose that the product is actually made à l’ancienne. He or she will, however, expect that the taste is reasonably consonant with the promise of the pack, with its image and extensive copy which talks of “the crispness and authenticity of the crisps of yesteryear”. The taste, in other words, will be reassuringly old-fashioned.

The punter is playing the branding game, becoming the willing co-conspirator in the creation of a brand image. That term, incidentally, was introduced into advertising and disciplines beyond, by the recently deceased seigneur of a château an hour’s drive away. David Ogilvy will be greatly missed.

The word “communication” has a Latin origin. “Communicare” means to share or exchange. The crisp purchaser willingly trades disbelief in the literal truth of the pack’s imagery for belief in the product’s delivery, the old-fashioned taste.

Millions of such exchanges take place every shopping minute. Marketing is predicated on them. This is not to say (and provide ammunition for advertising’s critics) that advertising is all image and no reality, all fancy and no substance. The magic Ogilvy created for Dove was anchored in factual reality, in his beautifully crafted text and the key line, still there 40 years later, “one quarter moisturising cream”.

Returning to our crisps, the substance of taste will justify the imagery of the pack. But what’s this? A flash at the top: Nouvelle Recette. How can traditional crisps have a new recipe? More to the point, why? Was a previous attempt to recapture the taste not sufficiently “genuine”, so that Croky’s cooks, or more likely the lab’s flavour technicians, had to invent a new old taste? Or, conversely, was the taste not new enough?

Or (and this is the most disturbing scenario) are the words meant to denote nothing, convey absolutely no literal meaning? Traditional chips? It’s just a brand name. It doesn’t mean anything. And as for the new recipe, well, everybody does that. Look at the Labour Party. Only pedants like David Bernstein worry about the inconsistency of those two messages. After all, what really matters is, do they like the taste and do they remember the name? Well, I hated the taste and made sure I remembered the name.

Words are something I respect, probably more than the average reader of this journal. So I was intrigued to read in the local paper of a lecture by a university professor in a château in a nearby small town on “Europe’s linguistic diversity”.

I went. It was crowded. The French, unlike the Brits, are fascinated by ideas and have time for intellectuals. Even one like Henrietta Walter, who believes a living language is one which gives to other languages and receives from them. “This diversity is indispensable in France and the rest of Europe. Lose it and one loses the colour and nature of people,” she says. Madame Walter’s sentiments are refreshingly at odds with the view, as generally understood, of the Académie Française. It’s too late to keep out “chips” (American). It would also seem to have lost a more recent battle: “fax” has virtually replaced “tèlécopie”.

Though I did see two very contemporary English words on a bottle in Bricomarché, the DIY superstore: “EMAIL NET”. No, it wasn’t a trendy brand name, but a simple product descriptor.

One other name on a pack and I’m through. A downside of globalisation is the loss of individual brand names which are exactly right in one language. Fruit juice hasn’t yet suffered much globalisation so I can continue to enjoy my supermarket’s own-label pear juice – “Poire à Boire”. Ain’t that the mot juste!

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