But these moviegoers don’t represent mainstream America, and Food, Inc. certainly isn’t the next Hollywood blockbuster. In fact, despite the apparent best intentions of director Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. isn’t exactly the 21st-century movie version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
In fact, cinematically, Food, Inc. is a rather slow-going and, at times, didactic screed against big-brand food producers. Although it appears to spare no brand, the abstract, fuzzy idea of “big food” winds up spreading the blame around enough to prevent any single brand from ending up the ultimate scapegoat, although the US$ 10 billion seed company Monsanto gets a thorough roasting (made all the worse by its refusal to talk to the filmmaker).
Yet no well-known consumer brand gets slammed repeatedly enough—not the case with McDonald’s in Morgan Spurlock’s documentary Super Size Me. It’s more a matter of guilt by association, especially for processed food brands that occupy the so-called “center store.” In a brief interlude, a series of food logos, including Twinkies, Heinz, Skippy, Peter Pan, Lucky Charms, Doritos and even Duracell batteries, spin hypnotically on screen, singled out for being produced via the “rearrangement of corn.”
Just as the threat of greenwashing ushered in a new era of carefully considered branding messages by consumer brands like Walmart and Coca-Cola, this new emerging critique of our industrialized food system is likely to create the need for more carefully crafted and tuned messages among food brands.
Indeed, the most obvious lesson of the movie is one for the logo designers of the branding world: It’s time to rethink the archetypal logo of the red barn and pastoral farm scene.
“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000, but the image that’s used to sell the food…you go into the supermarket and you see pictures of farmers. The picket fence and the silo and the 1930s farmhouse and the green grass. The reality is…it’s not a farm, it’s a factory. That meat is being processed by huge multi-national corporations that have very little to do with ranches and farmers,” argues Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Call it farmwashing. Despite the rather arguable point that most consumers—especially during a recession—will buy what’s practical and not what is simply ethical, the pendulum is swinging toward transparency and away from what’s always been advertising’s stock and trade: forged imagery and obfuscation.
An increasingly broader audience wants to know what it’s buying, and the Internet makes it possible to find out. And films like Food, Inc. lay it out. Big food is selling rearranged corn. And tons of it.
“All those snack food calories are the ones that come from the commodity crops, from the wheat, from the corn, and from the soybeans. By making those calories really cheap, it’s one of the reasons that the biggest predictor of obesity is income level,” Pollan adds.
Look no further than the logo of Hillshire Farm, a brand owned by food giant and master marketer Sara Lee. It’s almost exactly as Pollan describes: a red silo, green grass, a small barn. Yet all those kielbasa, hot dogs and smoked sausage aren’t sourced in some kind of idyllic pastoral world, and all those pigs and cows get fattened up not on grass…but corn.