In affluent societies, consumption is about creating identity rather than meeting human needs, argues Clive Hamilton. And to reinforce the point, he invites us to "consider the semiotics of the potato today". According to Hamilton, today’s shoppers can choose from 15 varieties of organic potato with shapes and colours "carefully selected to appeal to different market segments." While it was once just a starchy staple, the food has now become a lifestyle accessory — a way of telling other people who you are.
One of Hamilton’s big themes is that "consumption no longer occurs in order to meet human needs; its purpose is now to manufacture identity" (p 95). Some critics think this claim is exaggerated. In an article for Overland, socialist writer Tom O’Lincoln scoffed: "as if people buy potatoes only to look cool" — a response Hamilton dismisses as hopelessly naive:
Unattuned to its subtle methods, O’Lincoln seems oblivious to the subversive effects of marketing. It is true that, not so many years ago, a potato was just a potato. But consider the semiotics of the potato today. Despite its ordinariness, consumers now demand much more than a mere vegetable. The varieties, shapes and colours are carefully selected to appeal to different market segments. Blemishes have been bred or selected out. Potatoes are promoted by supermarkets as part of the ‘fresh food’ that discerning and health-conscious consumers will want to buy. Vegetable sections have special lighting to highlight the ‘natural’ colour and palatability of potatoes. For many, the type of potatoes they buy is an expression of their lifestyle and the way they see themselves. So we can go to an organic vegetable shop and select from around fifteen varieties of potato knowing that whichever we choose we will be treating our bodies as temples. The marketing of the vegetable has been designed to elevate it above that of the modest tuber O’Lincoln still sees. Buying potatoes will not make you cool, but it can make you a lot of other things. And potatoes are the most mundane of fresh foodstuffs. If we turn our minds to the fruit and vegetables surrounding the potato, the semiotics become even more complex.
But the truth is, the potato used to be a much more semiotically interesting vegetable than it is today. In its ancestral home high in the Andes, it is impossible to understand traditional culture without first understanding the potato. But in the affluent north, markets and industrialisation have peeled the meaning away.
While Hamilton claims that advertisers "long ago discarded the practice of selling a product on the merits of his useful features" (p 81), this is pretty much what modern potato marketing is all about. Marketers offer recipes and guides showing consumers which potato varieties to choose for roasting, boiling, mashing or frying. The United States Potato Board spent two years researching consumer attitudes and finally decided that their key message should be: "potatoes are good for you". And rather than segmenting the market, they concluded that their best shot was with a woman called ‘Linda’:
After exhaustive market research, the industry determined the "sweet spot" for potato consumption remains a target consumer epitomized by a consumer target identified as "Linda". "Linda" is a mother with children under 18 years old at home. "Linda" is heedful of her family’s taste when it comes to eating and is concerned for her and her family’s health/wellness. She tries to buy healthy foods, but is aware of price. And even though she doesn’t have a lot of extra time, making dinner at home is important to her. "Linda" is a person who will make a difference for potatoes. She is most open to our message, and ultimately is most likely to eat more potatoes and spread the good news to her friends and family.
According to Tim O’Conner, a marketing advisor for the U.S. Potato Board in Denver, one of the biggest hurdles the industry faces is the perception that potatoes are fattening. "Twenty-five percent of women believe potatoes are fattening", he says. For decades potato marketers have struggled against the belief that people who eat potatoes end up looking like them. For example, in the January 1929 edition of the American Potato Journal, Paul Kempter wrote:
We all know that the prevailing mode of the slender waistline has been a tremendous detriment to the consumption of potatoes. Nobody acquainted with the elementary principles of dietetics will deny the fact that potatoes eaten in great quantities, have a tendency to fatten. On the other hand they also admit that potatoes wisely used in our daily diet are important to our well being, and as I shall prove to you, they are absolutely indispensable to those who want to be well and look well.
Apparently Kempter’s proof wasn’t enough. With the low-carb diet fad gathering pace in the early-2000s, the American potato industry hit back with fact-laden campaigns designed to convince consumers that potatoes are healthy. Australian marketers faced the same challenge. According to AUSVEG’s Matthew Wickham, Australian consumers needed to be educated about the nutritional benefits of fresh potatoes (pdf).
For marketers, there is nothing complicated about the semiotics of the potato. Potatoes tend to be round, pale and lumpy. And while many consumers in affluent countries like the US and Australia are also round, pale and lumpy, they would prefer not be. Potatoes are also starchy. And unfortunately for potato marketers, it is widely believed that the consumption of starchy foods leads to personal roundness and lumpiness. Advertisers have spent so much of their time discouraging this idea that they have had little left for the more subtle marketing techniques Hamilton frets about.
So it seems as if O’Lincoln is right. In countries like Australia, potatoes are devoid of commercially contrived cultural meaning. If they signify anything at all, it’s comfort, frugality and old-fashioned home cooking. As Matthew Wickham complained "Spuds have a Humble/Lowly Image". So amidst all the buzz about Asian, Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine, potatoes have been left behind. Industry people are left hoping that comfort food will become fashionable or that Peruvian will become the new Thai.
Peru and Bolivia are the potato’s ancestral home. And it’s in the least commercialised parts of South America that potatoes are semiotically interesting. In traditional Andean villages, potatoes really are an expression of people’s lifestyle and the way they see themselves. While organic vegetable markets in Australia might have 10 or 15 varieties of potato for sale, traditional communities in the Andes cultivate thousands of different varieties.
According to Alejandro Argumedo, a Peruvian plant scientist and social activist, "Potato is not just food. Potato is also spirituality; it’s culture … There are songs, dances, ceremonies. So this is a potato land … a culture of potato." When ethnomusicologist Henry Stobart traveled to subsistence farming community in Bolivia, he tried to engage the locals in a conversation about their musical traditions. But somehow the conversation always returned to potatoes. Stobart found that it was impossible to understand the seasonal cycle of musical genres, dances and instruments without understanding the life cycle of the potato. "For my hosts", he wrote, "the potato is no mundane staple, but is an enchanting and magical being whose life is seen in many ways to parallel and enable their own."
In the hyper-commercialised communities of the affluent north, the potato has been stripped of its meaning and enchantment. It is now just another bland starch that a health-conscious woman called ‘Linda’ serves to her family. Hamilton argues that modern marketing builds symbolic associations between products and the emotions and aspirations of consumers, but in reality, our system of commercialised production and exchange has processed many of these associations out of everyday products.
Like bakers adding fibre to white loafs, advertisers struggle to put the enchantment back into everyday products. They try to invest ordinary objects with meanings — meanings which allow consumers to to express themselves by buying and using the product. So, as Hamilton observes, "The art of the successful modern consumer is to consume in a way that says ‘this is who I am’ without it being apparent that the statement is being made" (p 82). But there is nothing new or insidious about people using material objects to announce their identity or to communicate something about themselves. Even animals ‘waste’ resources in order to send messages to each other. Peacocks, for example, divert scarce resources into growing and maintaining large colourful tail feathers — feathers that have no ‘practical’ purpose. Like a consumer maneuvering a large four-wheel-drive through a city parking station, the peacock finds itself handicapped by its ungainly tail. But just as expensive cars, clothes and houses can signal market prowess, a large tail signals good genes.
In traditional societies people’s choices about what to express are tightly constrained — as are the identities they can assume and virtues they are allowed to pursue. What has changed is that people in affluent market societies have more choice about who they are and what they want to become. It is not surprising that people now demand goods that allow them to communicate the qualities of their ‘authentic inner selves‘ to others. Commercial products such as novels and music help people to find others who share their beliefs, values and feelings.
Economic growth doesn’t need to be about creating greater quantities of stuff. An economy can grow by adding meaning to objects. Products which are rich in meaning and associations have greater value than those which serve purely utilitarian purposes. So by embedding ordinary objects in a web of cultural meaning, advertisers add value without having to create anything physical. Even the potato can be re-enchanted.
Hamilton’s complaint is that advertisers create dissatisfaction in order to sell us stuff we don’t need. They tell us we’re fat so that they can sell us gym memberships, they tell us we smell so that they can sell us deodorants and they tell us our kids don’t know enough about China so they can sell us broadband internet connections. So instead of satisfying our wants, marketing multiplies them and makes us miserable in the process.
If only we could stop wanting things we don’t need, says Hamilton, we could get in touch with our authentic selves, start growing, and become the people we were meant to be.
It all makes sense if you consider the potato. Like the potato plant, human beings need certain things in order to grow and reach our potential. Potato plants should not aspire to be Christmas trees. Adorning themselves with trinkets is a distraction from their true purpose in life — to produce big starchy tubers. According to Hamilton, human needs, like the potato’s, are relative simple. If we could only stop being distracted by trinkets, we could discover our true purpose and concentrate on personal growth.
For Hamilton, true freedom is about submitting to our inner nature — the unique potential we were born with. We shouldn’t struggle and try to become something else. Choice is an illusion. So soak up the sun, reach for the water, and let Hamilton take care of the manure. Discover your inner potato and be free.