Joan Menefee has never been a picky eater. She and her husband live in Menomonie, Wisconsin, where they tend gardens in two counties and eat plums and grapes in public parks.

Whither generics?

Private labels just aren’t as cool

By
December 1, 2008

At the risk of looking petty, I am going to report a recent conversation.

Me: Look at that funny white label. Doesn’t it remind you of generic beer cans we used to see in the supermarket when we were kids?

Husband: Huh. You’re right. I wonder where those generics went.

Me: I think they became “Our Family” or “Kroger’s.”

Husband: You’re thinking of private labels, not generics.

Me: Aren’t they the same thing?

Husband: (shrug)

I know, I know. I, too, can’t help but marvel at the pure romance of this relationship. You should hear us get going about dog food.

Beer. Just beer.

But seriously. What is the difference between a private label and a generic brand?

From my brief research, I’ve learned that generics differ from private labels mainly in the area of looks. When corporations began producing generics during the economic doldrums that OPEC visited upon the United States in the 1970s, these low-cost products wore plain labels that alerted consumers to their no-nonsense virtues. It was a sort of anti-advertising campaign in the quaint era before three-year-olds knew what “branding” meant.

As hard times gave way to high times (and I traded velour shirts for peg-legged jeans), the visual rhetoric of generics lost its appeal, but the logic of off-brand marketing did not. It still made sense for food-industry bigwigs to hedge their brand bets by supplying the tighter-fisted wing of the buying public with comparable goods at lower prices. Ergo, private labels began to populate the supermarket landscape like mushrooms after an April rainstorm.

And the generic labels pretty much disappeared.

Because I live in a world rich in “brand experiences,” generics look pleasantly punk to me, much cooler, in fact, than off-brands. (Surely we’re intimate enough to cast off that pretentious and euphemistic “private label” business.)

Off-brands seem like the slightly warped cousins in the food family. Is there any more poignant relationship than that of Mr. Pibb and Dr. Pepper? Or what about Twinkies’ unacknowledged offspring, Golden Creme — the cake a little less dense, the filling a little too firm?

Walking the grocery-store aisles, I am struck by these not-quite-cool products perching beside their cosmopolitan, soignée cousins. Their box colors are washed out or luridly dated, their slogans geekier-than-thou.

As you can see, I bring my high-school social anxiety shopping with me daily.

As any home-economics teacher will tell you, though, the government requires companies to catalog ingredients on their product labels. So if you really want to know what separates the Hydrox from the Lowdrox, you have only to don your spectacles and play “Match the Chemical Compound.”

Most of the time, you’ll find little difference between name brand and off-brand goods, though the wacky folks who post their thoughts on the Web tell me that off-brand soda pop and paper towels are completely intolerable, while the potato chips aren’t half bad.

Reading through these heartfelt testimonials as our nation enters an economic crisis at least as bad as that of my childhood, I ask myself, “Will generics make their bold return? Will they come rushing down the hill on milk-white stallions, the word ‘TUNA’ emblazoned on each of their muscle-bound flanks?”

I can hear the trumpets sounding as the Fearless Generics rescue early-21st-century civilization, bringing their low-tech, straight-edge food values to confused shoppers everywhere.

Part of me would like to see our nation stop trying to achieve confidence, security, and belonging through the purchase of tomato sauce and popcorn, especially when we pay for it through the nose. But this is not to say that I am immune to branding.

My Romance of Generics may actually be a lame attempt to be so uncool that I’m cool, like the 1980s bands who wore wingtips, bowling shirts, and safety glasses. In some sense, this romance is all about looks.

At the very least, I feel it worthwhile to admit that the same invisible and sometimes trivial forces that rule my taste in music, clothes, and furniture also influence my food choices. If only it were solely what hit the tongue that mattered.

Yes, I was the one who lectured my husband that off-brands and generics were the same thing. And, yes, I was right. But in a more subtle sense, he was right. For the gesture of generics — that stark, “buy me if you dare” label — signifies more than just a product that cost a little less to make and nothing at all to market. It signifies a willingness to cut through the lying, exaggerating, and hairsplitting that define our food landscape.

The generic label says, “Hey, stupid. It’s not the label you put in your mouth.” Sure, it’s punk, but it’s a message worth repeating.

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