UK readers have probably seen this advert; International readers may need reminding that our crisps are your potato chips. Regardless of where you are in the world, consider what Walkers Crisps are demonstrating with their latest advertising campaign. They have created three new flavours, none of which is instantly recognisable as the food upon which it is ostensibly based. They then exult in this flavour opacity by selling them “blind”, and asking eaters to guess what the flavours are, in return for a cash prize.
The success of this campaign depends on any one – or a combination of – the following axioms being true:
- Walkers are unable to accurately recreate complex food flavours in crisp format
- Crisp flavours are so divorced from real food flavours that devoid of an active packaging lable nudge, they cannot be recognised as such
- People are hopeless at actively identifying any flavour, relying heavily on explicit prompts in any setting
- Actual flavour doesn’t matter; only the idea of the flavour matters
- (we can take it as read that a somewhat bemused elderly lady speaking slowly to camera is also a necessary but not sufficient factor to crisp marketing success…)
My suspicion is that all the above are true to some extent, but it’s the point about the Idea mattering more than the Actual, that is the most interesting.
Seekers of truth have long debated whether there is a reality separate from human perception. Walkers’ contest demonstrates the impossibility of answering this question. Each entrant submits an answer based on their own perceptions. Walkers determines who is correct by reference to their food scientists’ design brief. But if a majority of people do not identify the flavour as the one Walkers meant their crisps to taste of, is it the taster or Walkers that is wrong?
The extreme Idealist position would be that neither camp is wrong, but rather that there isn’t such a thing as an objectively identifiable food flavour, only a consensus agreement between a large enough mass of people. This circular logic, of course, is what accounts for the longstanding joke that any previously unencountered food “tastes like chicken” (chicken having a sufficiently broad flavour so as to cover a multitude of new tastes). This dependence on perception & cozy consensus also underpins the problem outlined recently at the Oxford Wine Blog, discussing how to fairly rate wines.
What is true in the realm of food & drink applies equally in all fields of knowledge. For instance, there is much debate about the new psychiatric diagnoses being created by the upcoming DSM-V, with the concern (shared by myself) that it will encourage an over-medicalisation of the normal human condition. DSM-V loosens the diagnostic criteria for many existing disorders, and creates fresh ones too. This is a clear boon to the pharmaceutical industry (who will be able to sell into a whole new set of niches), to some blinkered professionals (who believe in their ability to heal everyone, if only they had more power to do so), and to those individuals seeking (consciously or unconsciously) to divest themself of responsibility for their situation and to adopt a sick role where they require treatment instead. Deciding where illness ends and normality begins has always been difficult, and in large part depends on consensus, something recently discussed at the start of a friend’s TEDx talk. The future seems murkier still.
There is a path forward. As individuals, we can try to acknowledge the gossamer-thin nature of reality. The lack of an objectively identifiable truth does not negate the emotional meaning of a subjective one. But crucially, neither does it elevate the subjective into the position of unquestionable fact simply because objectivity is difficult to ensure. Meaning is possible alongside such tolerance, even when Truth is not achievable. And with meaning, comes the potential for happiness.
In other words, Walkers crisps may not have a flavour all can agree upon, but we can still decide whether we like them or not.