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Tuesday, September 21, 2021

What your preferred package of potato chips says about you

Picture this: You and your friends are hanging out in the backyard, playing Frisbee or cornhole, waiting for the hamburgers to grill on the barbecue.

It’s a summer evening and the sun is beginning to set, and the heat is subsiding. The smell of the barbecue wafts through the air and your grill-master friend hollers that the burgers are ready. You settle into a lawn chair with a cool beverage in one hand and a plate of food in the other. You reach into the potato chip bag for a perfect, salty crunch to counter the juicy meat, tomatoes, ketchup and bun. Stop a minute and look at the potato chip bag.

What does the advertising say on the bag? What are the descriptions? All natural? Kettle cooked? Since 1955? These descriptions indicate more than just the kind of chip or how it is made. Rather, the advertising language gives insight to one’s identity, particularly socioeconomic class and values.

You probably could guess that the language on a Cheetos bag targets the lower class, budget conscious and perhaps college students (hey, it’s cheap and cheesy), while a bag of Boulder Canyon chips or Kettle Brand appeals to the upper class. But wait, beyond the price and social class matchup, there’s more that is revealed in the advertising language on the chip bag.

A study by linguists at Stanford University found that more expensive chip brands use more words, more complex language, longer sentences and uncommon words than inexpensive chips. Compare “flair,” “savory” and “culinary” on expensive chip bags with the more common words “fresh,” “light,” “basic,” and “extra” on inexpensive bags.

Inexpensive: “What gives our chips their exceptional great taste? It’s no secret. It’s the way they’re made!”

Expensive: “We use totally natural ingredients, hand rake every batch, and test chips at every stage of preparation to ensure quality and taste.”

Yet prevalent in both types of chips (expensive and inexpensive) is the appeal for authenticity. Americans want the real deal, but what this means depends on social class. 

Advertising language conveys in different ways how a chip bag is authentic, ultimately hoping to convince consumers that “If you buy our chip bag, you’re buying into authenticity.”

Advertising language aimed at the upper class emphasizes health and natural living (all natural, sea salt, only real food ingredients, kettle cooked, totally natural and never fried). Advertising toward the working class makes references to tradition and historicity with an emphasis on the company’s early founding and long histories (since 1986, an old family recipe, Bill and Sally Utz believed, classic American snacks).

So what kind of potato chip you had for lunch or dinner says a lot about your identity, socioeconomic class and notion of authenticity. 

According to Adam Drewnowski, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington, “In America, food has become the premier marker of social distinctions, that is to say—social class. It used to be clothing and fashion, but no longer, now that ‘luxury’ has become affordable and available to all.”

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This week’s ‘the nibble’… Do you think chocolate bars would show similar results? Or is another value besides authenticity promoted? And in a different way?

For further reading, check out Joshua Freedman and Dan Jurafsky’s (2011) “Authenticity in America: Class Distinctions in Potato Chip Advertising” in Gastronomica 11: page 46-54.

[A version of this story ran on page 9 on 5/29/2014 under the headline "What your preferred package of potato chips says about you"]

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