Stay Tuned/Pitfalls of Pillsbury Culture

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

Pitfalls of Pillsbury Culture
26 October 1997

It's hard to not love Pillsbury. They conduct their business relatively calmly, relatively cleanly, and without excessive hype; they sponsor the Bake-Off, which white-trash cookery would be so much poorer without; they make products which are of good quality ... but on the other hand, it's possible to pin the blame on them for a lot of social and nutritional disasters.

Let's take the current campaign for Old El Paso taco shells as the nadir, and work our way from there.

Wait a minute, some people in the back are hollering. What's this about Old El Paso? Mutter mutter. Thought this was gonna be about Pillsbury.

Sorry about that. Here's the scoop: Pillsbury is also Old El Paso, Progresso, Martha White flour, Downyflake, Jeno's, Green Giant, Totino's, and Haagen-Dazs. They themselves are held by a large - very large - British conglomerate called Grand Metropolitan PLC, which also owns Heublein. I realize you wanted it to be all homey and romantic, but that's corporate life these days, and you shouldn't count that as a point against them (unless you're the sort who doesn't wish to purchase anything which is in any way connected with the name of a booze manufacturer.) ([2007:] Besides, they're not connected with them anymore. See notes at end.)

Now, where was I? Oh, yes, taco shells. The Old El Paso campaign currently involves breaking the taco shells in half, and using them as dippers for the taco filling, which you have layered onto the plate into a sort of multi-layer dip.

The multi-layer dip thing is nothing new, by the by. People have been doing it for years (my recipe has layers of refried beans, cheese, avocado chunks, and tomato). I just thought I'd say that before someone pointed it out to me.

I am using this as representative of the low end because it manages to catch all of Pillsbury's bad traits:

1. Encouraging consumer laziness. OK, most consumer food products are "convenience foods" in one sense or another, granted. But the Pillsbury line (by which I mean the goods which actually appear under the Pillsbury name) has built its business on the backs of people who are too lazy or too busy to bake - and to a certain extent they do this by encouraging people to think that - by telling people that baking is too much trouble and too time-consuming. This is how skills get lost.

Exaggeration? New product (I have the ad here to prove this exists): the Pillsbury One Step Cookie. "Out of pouch ... into oven. That's it!" It is a round eight-inch chocolate cookie which comes already poured and set, in an aluminum pan. You just stick the pan in the oven. This is for people, apparently, who felt that squeezing the dough out of the little sausage-casing-like tube into a pan of their own was just too much effort.

I'm no model of virtue, but I make Congo Bars regularly (a chocolate chip bar cookie with nuts) and they take under a half hour to mix, plus another half hour to bake. This is a time constraint? And they taste better too.

I can understand the tube of faux "crescent rolls" - although I don't like the idea that some people have grown up thinking that's what croissants taste like - because that sort of pastry dough really is hell to make. But sugar cookies? One of the most foolproof batters known to man?

In the case of the Old El Paso "Taco Dinner" (shells, sauce, seasoning) not only do they make the shells for you (which is reasonable to me, I don't expect anyone to deep-fry their own tortillas, but then, I prefer soft-shell tacos anyway) ... not only do they provide pre-mixed seasoning for the meat (less reasonable - geez, folks, get some chili powder and mix it in) ... but now they want to provide an out for those people for whom the grueling labor of filling a taco shell is just too much to take.

Am I being too harsh on the tacos? There are plenty of other examples. Just look for them. Pillsbury advertising almost always talks about how quick or foolproof their products are ("Fresh-Baked Garlic Breadsticks as easy as 1 ... 2 ... 3!" or "Get to the Fun Faster!") as opposed to how delicious they are ... or how nutritious. Which may connect directly to ....

2. Encouraging the American palate - that is to say, a palate which gets its ideas of "flavor" from heavy lashings of salt and sugar. Again, there are any number of packaged foods which are guilty of this, but Pillsbury is a really big offender across the board.

I have here a can of Progresso vegetable soup. Salt and sugar are right there on the label - the primary flavorings. Bear in mind that Progresso is ostensibly "ethnic," and should therefore be assumed to have a little zing to it - but I end up shaking seasonings into any variety I happen to open. Why do Americans think that anything with three grains of red pepper in it is "spicy?" Because they grew up with Pillsbury. Happily, the people from Texas and Louisiana are succeeding in their attempt to explain to the rest of the country that this doesn't have to be the case.

Oh, all right, I'm being irrational and cranky. (And some other parts of the country, let it be said before you flame me, know all about spicy food, without any help from the Southerners.) But do you know how it makes me feel when I see an ad for Pillsbury's cinnamon buns and realize that the increase in the amount of icing they're bragging about almost certainly implies a corresponding decrease in the amount of cinnamon?

Once again the ads tell the story. When Pillsbury has touted "new and improved" baked goodies in recent memory, the "improvement" amounts to more fatty goo - more chocolate chips in the brownies, more icing on the rolls, etc. Sure, they're only playing to the American tastes, but who gave the Americans those tastes in the first place?

3. Bad ideas for better living. The problem with the taco shell ads, as any bright preschooler can tell you, is that people already have excellent tools for dipping into dips - they're called chips. While I grant that line extension is a necessary survival skill, this is a really stupid idea on Pillsbury's part.

(The television ad, which is well-done and very funny - there, I said something positive - has a Grant Wood-like elderly couple say of the taco-shell-breaking crowd, "Them folks just ain't right." Indeed.)

Frequently, in its zest to provide new conveniences to make our life just a wee bit easier, Pillsbury goes a wee bit over the top in the bad planning or hype departments.

I was going to give another example of this. I had in mind the Green Giant Create a Meal line. These are bags of frozen vegetables and pasta, apparently with some kind of rudimentary sauce. You mix them with browned ground beef. Poof! Instant non-healthful salt-and-sugar-laden dinner. I find this a dumb idea because I myself would just boil some noodles, toss some veggies into the water at the last minute, and do the whole thing myself - nor do I consider that "cooking" - but then I realized that I'm looking at the matter from a very different perspective, and the same objection hasn't stopped people from buying Hamburger Helper. In fact, the Pillsbury ad has their bag covering up a box of the same.

So I withdraw the example. I thought the sugar cookies with the American flag imbedded in cross-section, millefiore style, were dumb too - they must have sold, though, because they're doing it again with jack-o-lanterns for Hallowe'en. Clearly I am just not a typical member of the buying public.

In fact, this whole document will probably sound elitist to some readers.

OK, to an extent I am using Pillsbury as a whipping boy for some of the things that annoy me about the food preparation and consumption habits of the country - but it's only because their psychological influence is so pervasive.

Many of my friends and I grew up with Pillsbury cinnamon rolls and orange breakfast rolls - the kind that had the vaguely orange-flavored goo on top. They were a special treat on weekend mornings - and I didn't learn how much better my mom could make cinnamon rolls until much later. And what about those crescent rolls? What about those Hungry Jack biscuits, eh? What about that chocolate cookie dough, which you always managed to sneak about half of raw from the tube, despite your mother yelling that it was bad for you?

What about the fact that the Pillsbury Doughboy is one of the most recogizable symbols in America, one which is even more subversive because unlike some other mascots, there is very little backlash - in other words, most people actually like him? I have here an ad for a wall calendar with niches in which you put a set of little porcelain Doughboy figures, one for each month: The February one is making a heart-shaped cookie, the November one is making a pumpkin pie, et cetera. It is clearly meant to be hung in the kitchen. Not even the Damned Clown (see 12 October) has the audacity to attempt to permeate the home kitchen.

I suppose what I'm saying, amid all this ranting and frothing, is that if you take them as just another food brand, Pillsbury is a decent company, better behaved than many and making products of consistent quality.

If, on the other hand, you take them as an icon and a cultural influence, they have a lot to answer for.

Which is more or less the same place we were when we started, so I'll stop.

Other Business

A couple of people - incensed by hearing David Bowie's "Heroes" from an unlikely source - have asked me to say something about Microsoft buying the rights to certain seminal rock classics. Ahem. Well, I agree that it's pretty rotten to hear a song which has deep personal associations for you used as background music to hawk products, but you know, if I were David Bowie or Mick Jagger, and Bill Gates came up and offered me a bazillion dollars to use my song in his lousy ads, I'd sign off on that so fast his little bespectacled head would spin. It's only a song, folks, and it still means whatever you want it to mean.

Besides, Gates is actually beginning to reap what he sows for a change (witness the latest anti-competition flak). In this case, he may well find that the new sales the ads generate are equalled by ill will from potential buyers who don't like having their icons co-opted. Or so one can hope.


[February 2007:] I am pleased (well, maybe pleased is not the word) to announce that the Danbury Mint is apparently still offering the Doughboy calendar at this late date, which means that if you want to get a glimpse of it, you can. Act now while this offer lasts.

Pillsbury is so pervasive as a cultural icon in America that the brand continues to have strong sell value even though it is now essentially owned by its competitor! The story goes like this: Sometime during the process when Grand Metropolitan was buying Guinness and becoming the beverage giant Diageo, it was realizing that it wanted to focus on beverages and spirits. It was already essentially only a licenser for its Pillsbury brands (all manufacturing was outsourced), and in 2000 it sold the whole Pillsbury caboodle to ... General Mills. General Mills was Pillsbury's traditional rival back in the days when both companies were growing up in Minneapolis.

General Mills was forced to divest some of what it had purchased, for antitrust reasons, and sold all Pillsbury dry baking products and frosting lines to the Smucker's people. So if you are buying Pillsbury frozen foods or any of the other formerly Pillsbury-owned brands, you are buying from General Mills; if you're buying flour or frosting, it's from Smucker's. Under the circumstances, it's amazing Pillsbury has contined to exist as a brand, and I agree with Wikipedia that the primary reason it hasn't is the iconography of that damned Doughboy.

and now back to our program

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