Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Potato Chips

The political season is well upon us and that means a lot of politicians talking about strugglin' and rollin' up our sleeves, especially when speaking to working class audiences. Since the pioneering work of sociolinguists like Bill Labov, linguists have studied the ways we chose variants, like "-in" to project a working class authenticity but "-ing" to project an educated or professional persona (see some lovely posts on political aspects of -in/-ing by my friends Mark Liberman, Geoff Nunberg, and Julie Sedivy).

Photograph by Stephanie Shih.
Used by permission
This use of linguistic variables to mark identity and authenticity occurs in the language of food as well. Josh Freedman, a young political researcher, was an even younger freshman in my Language of Food seminar at Stanford four years ago when he became interested in how the language of food advertising reflects socio-economic class. Josh's idea led to a collaboration that you can read about in detail in the latest issue of the journal Gastronomica. Stephanie Shih's lovely photo above gives you the intuition; below is a quick sketch of our results.

Josh and I looked at 12 bags of potato chips, 6 more expensive (Boulder, Dirty, Kettle Brand, Popchips, Terra, Season's, averaging 68 cents per ounce) and 6 less expensive (Hawaiian, Herr's, Lays, Tim's, Utz, and Wise, averaging 40 cents per ounce). We coded up all the advertising text from the back of the chips and then examined how the words differed between the two classes of chips.

What factors characterized expensive chips? You may be surprised to learn that potato chips are a health food; almost all chips (expensive or not) emphasized the healthiness of their products by using phrases like "low fat", "healthier", "no cholesterol", or "lowest sodium level". But these health-related claims occur on expensive chips 6 times as often as on inexpensive chips (6 times per bag versus once per bag). This difference in health language is not, as far as we can tell, due to actual differences in the chips. No chips in our sample contain trans fats, but only 2 out of the 6 inexpensive chips talk about it. By contrast, every one of the 6 expensive chips mentions the lack of trans fats.

Expensive chips also turn out to be much more natural. Phrases such as "natural", "real", or "nothing artificial" are 2.5 times more likely to be mentioned on expensive bags (7 times on each expensive bag but under 3 times on each inexpensive bag).

Finally, expensive chips are 5 times more likely to distinguish themselves from other chips, using comparative phrases like "less fat than other leading brands", "best in America", "in a class of their own". or "a crunchy bite you won't find in any other chip". Where text on the inexpensive chips focuses on the chips themselves, ads for expensive chips emphasize their differences from "lesser" chips.

Another way to differentiate is to use negative markers, words like "never", "not", or "no" ("never fried", "we don't wash out the natural potato flavor", "no wiping your greasy chip hand on your jeans"). Negation emphasizes bad qualities that a chip does not have, subtly suggesting that other brands have this bad quality. To get a more fine-grained analysis, we also regressed the number of negative words against the price. We found that a bag of potato chips costs 4 cents more per ounce for every additional negative word on the bag.

In his famous book "Distinction", sociologist Pierre Bourdieu showed that our position in society heavily influences our tastes, whether in food, music, film, or art. He argues that "hip" or "fashionable" tastes are just a away for the upper class to display their high status, to distinguish themselves from other classes. Taste, says Bourdieu, is "first and foremost... negation... of the tastes of others". The fact that expensive chip advertising is full of comparison (less fat, finest potatoes) and negation (not, no, never, don't) suggests that Bourdieu is right, that the notion of upper class taste in food advertising is defined by contrast with tastes of other classes; what it is to be upper class is to be not working class.

What characterizes inexpensive chip advertising? Text on these chips tend to use simpler sentences and simpler words, with writing and vocabulary on average at the 8th grade level (as computed by the standard Flesch-Kincaid test that measures the length of sentences and words). The advertising on expensive chips is written at the 10th-11th grade level; here's a sample sentence from an expensive chip:

"We use totally natural ingredients, hand-rake every batch, and test chips at every stage of preparation to ensure quality and taste."

Notice the simpler grammar and vocabulary in this sample from an inexpensive chip:

"What gives our chips their exceptional great taste? It's no secret. It's the way they're made!"

This difference in language between the two classes of chips is a reflection of what one of the original Mad Men, David Ogilvy, said back in 1963 in Confessions of an Advertising Man:

Don't use high-falutin words for the non-high-falutin audience.

Finally, Josh and I looked at words related to authenticity. Authenticity has become an obsession in our society, a fact that is not lost on marketers for whom, the New York Times recently noted, "the exultation of the 'authentic' reaches near-hilarious heights". Authenticity comes in many flavors. We talked above about products being "natural" or "real"; a product is also more authentic if it is grounded in family or American traditions. We looked at this kind of traditional authenticity, measuring mentions of tradition ("family recipe"), the founding or founder of a company ("our founder..."), or mentions of America or American locations ("the great Pacific Northwest").

Mentions of tradition occurred more than twice as often on inexpensive chips. Our linear regression showed that every time a family or an American locale is mentioned, the price per ounce of the chips drops 10 cents. The inexpensive chips thus represent a model of authenticity rooted in family traditions and family-run companies, and set in regional locations throughout America.

For the upper class, by contrast, being authentic means being natural, using quality natural ingredients and avoiding artificial ingredients, preservatives, and so on. Words like artificial or fake are used solely in the expensive chip advertising. Even though most of the inexpensive chips also contain no preservatives, this fact is only mentioned in expensive chip advertising. This emphasis on authentic food as natural and non-artificial is prevalent in the popular press as well in books like Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food, which contains rules for avoiding what Pollan calls "imitation foods" :


Of course we all want to be special, and live an authentic life, whether we draw our metaphors from nature or from tradition. These models of natural versus traditional authenticity are part of our national dialogue, two of the many ways of framing that make up our ongoing conversation about who we are. The red state and blue state models of our nation are deeply inscribed in our collective discussion-- written on the back of every bag of potato chips.