Innocent drinks started it – a typical label (for their strawberry and banana smoothie) read: “We’re not saying that there’s anything wrong with going for a gym workout, it’s just, you know, all a bit of an effort really, isn’t it?” I imagine hearing this whispered wheedlingly in one’s ear on a crowded train; when you look round there’s no one there. “If I were you,” it continues, “I’d just have an innocent smoothie instead.” Note the lower-case “I” of the brand name, crushingly unthreatening, like: “Us? Corporate? Mate, we can’t even get our grammar in order!” At some point brands stopped wanting to make us sexier and richer, and instead just wanted to be our friends. It’s as though they all decided to babyproof their packaging, sanding down the corners and hard consonants, replacing “complicated” photography with crayon illustrations, including little jokes to break up the monotony of reading their calorific intake info.
A big hello from Jonty and Nick and all the fryers at Burts,” said a crisp packet to me recently, possibly in a regional accent. “Do you like our new packs? We love them! They were inspired by the beautiful shoes of our friend Kate Cordle!” Our fwend’s shoes. Carry on. “But why animal prints? We wanted to highlight the awful business that is palm-oil cultivation in Borneo and the harm it is doing to orangutans.” The awful thing about this one is that it makes me want to harm orangutans.
My friend Becca recently started recording her favourite examples on a blog called Wackaging. She’d snapped, you see, after buying a bottle of water labelled “Boring H20”. “Don’t call me boring,” she says, still quite irate. “Not when I’ve just spent two quid on you.” On her blog you’ll find a close-up of Pret A Manger’s lemonade label: “Best when chilled (as indeed we all are)”; repeat offenders Ella’s Kitchen, whose labels are printed in pretend baby-writing, and Whole Earth cola, the cans of which have a little arrow towards the drinker saying: “Nutty cola nut”. Don’t you dare, Whole Earth cola. Don’t you dare.
Like the “You don’t have to be mad to work here…” office manager two drinks in, these brands grip you in an uncomfortable bear hug. When did brands start positioning themselves as families, communities, their offices big picnic blankets of giggling executives, their products carved from whimsy and solid, waxen love? When we buy their lemonade, it’s as if we’re signing a petition. With their cooing “Join us” labels, they seem to be attempting to help us mediate a dangerous world, a world of scary grown-ups. Grown-ups who do bad things like pollute and sweat.
These brands are the opposite of sexy. They’re anti-sex; they stand on the other side of the brand motorway to perfumes or Nuts magazine. Is this cuteness the consequence of sex-sells branding, the answer song to all those oily boob ads? If you feed in a lorryload of thighs and innuendo at the start of a decade, does it excrete cupcakes and baby voices at the end? Are our brands to blame for keeping us immature? For swaddling us, suspended in a fruit-filled Neverland, where we wake to find ourselves the life partner of a packet of ethical crisps? Because more and more I don’t want to be part of my foodstuff’s big society. I don’t want an earnest chat about monkeys, or for its wrapping to flirt with me. More and more, I just want lunch.