Thursday, June 19, 2014

Serving Suggestion

I don't know if you personally are knowledgeable of this, but being in retail as a method of actually generating income, I have come across the occasional customer that doesn't. So in my capacity as a marketing major, here is today's lesson on what you're looking for at the grocery store.

Let's begin with something I really probably shouldn't have to point out: the image on the box is not necessarily the image you see in the box. You've seen this way too many times with breakfast cereals:

You can pretty easily tell that the phrase 'part of this complete breakfast' gets tossed around a ton in that video. The cereal is there, and it's almost certainly a junky sugary one, but it's flanked by toast and milk and orange juice, all of which are significantly healthier and make for the complete part of the complete breakfast. The cereal might have fruit in it too, strawberries or bananas or something, and is probably half-drowned in milk. It's PART of the complete breakfast. The complete breakfast has the product in the box in there somewhere.

But then, that one's pretty well known. The one I see people missing at work is along the same lines: "serving suggestion". It's a TV Trope and everything, but let's cover it here anyway.

The term 'serving suggestion' isn't a phrase the FDA requires anyone to use. However, they do have a rule saying you can't be misleading about what's in the container. As the base product might not be all that appetizing- thus the fact that 'food stylist' is a job, one in which it's not exactly uncommon to use inedible ingredients if that's what will make a food look better- it's often felt that the product needs to be gussied up somehow, but it would be misleading not to say that the product was altered in some way, thus, the phrase 'serving suggestion'.

Here's one immediately apparent example, Vitakrone Meat Salad. You don't see the 'serving suggestion' phrase in the picture, but here's another where you can see it; it just got cropped out.

What you'll have on the container is a dish in which the product is supposed to play some part or other. The product is in there somewhere, but it's obscured by other ingredients, sometimes to the point where you can't even really see the product. This can actually be pretty helpful if the product is flour or sugar or baking soda or cake mix or something like that; maybe they'll even toss in a recipe on the box (including the product, of course). But it's the more subtle cases, things like macaroni and cheese or a canned chow mein, where the 'serving suggestion' mark can cause all sorts of trouble. In order to figure out what parts of the 'serving suggestion' are the actual product, you'll probably have to read the ingredient label and check to see what parts of the shown meal aren't listed- as I have had to do for a customer before they noticed there weren't, say, any green beans included.

That's when this gets to be a dangerous game: when there are only a couple extra ingredients and it's still at least resembling the product inside, but isn't exactly the product. The task becomes figuring out which is which. People can realize that a bag of baking soda doesn't have cookies inside. But they might not notice an extra ingredient or two got tossed into the Hamburger Helper. Doesn't matter. Once that phrase is on the label, you can do just about whatever you want so long as you include the product somewhere in the mess.

After all, you're just suggesting.

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