Stay Tuned/The Mustard Manifesto

From Eccentric Flower


stay tuned

The Mustard Manifesto
25 August 1999

I learned a long time ago that as a writer, it doesn't pay to be thin-skinned. In fact I am usually in the opposite position; I have trouble convincing people to be harsh enough in their criticisms of my work. Normally criticism is something I am prepared not only to live with, but to welcome.

I have one or two sore spots, though.

Here are three claims which I do my utmost to never make, or even imply:
1. I am smarter than most people.
2. I am better than most people.
3. I am smug because I know something you don't.

I don't make claim number one because I doubt it's true; I don't make claim number two because I know it's not true; and both claims one and two are doubly dangerous because they yield so easily to claim number three ... which is the really insidious one.

I believe that revelling in the fact that you happen to have more brains or more information or better taste than the person next to you is just plain wrong. More than that, it breaks down what little bits of common courtesy are remaining to us in this horrendously rude, anarchic nation. We must operate on the basis that we are all equals until proven otherwise. This is the only way to have a sane society, as far as I'm concerned.

Even when we are slapped in the face with the knowledge that someone else is less than we are, we have an obligation to be as tactful about it as we can. Call it noblesse oblige if you want, I don't care. If you know you're better than someone else - and I'll expect hard proof of that, please - then you have a duty to not rub it in.

I make mistakes. Sometimes I forget. Sometimes I give into the temptation. Sometimes I think I'm not being smug and it turns out I am. The Mustard Incident was in the latter category. But again - and we need to be perfectly clear on this - what bothered me most was not the incident itself, nor even my reaction, but the way my friends responded to my reaction.

You'll notice from the archives listing that there was a gap of nearly a year between "Version 2" and "Version 3." The final Stay Tuned column before that hiatus contained an item about Maille brand mustard:

As an example, in an ad for Maille brand Dijon mustard, was it really necessary for the advertiser to put the explanation "(Pronounced 'My')" under the name of the product? Admittedly I grew up in a state where French is still spoken by a segment of the populace, but still. I don't know anyone who mispronounces "filet mignon," either.

Furthermore, why take a risk of insulting your audience? This is in a coupon-clipping section; your audience, if they decide to buy the product, will be identifying it visually, by jar shape and label. Having shown the jar prominently in the ad, you've taken care of that. Why do you care whether they mispronounce your name? In case they want to go to the grocer and ask him to stock it? News flash: Only urban trendies do things like that, and only for items like organic produce and specialty foods. There are a zillion Dijon mustards to choose from; Grey Poupon, the worst of the lot, owns the market; and no one is going to ask a grocer to stock your damned mustard with the unpronounceable name.

Now, it was already plain that I was becoming too cranky in these columns. In fact, I'd already made several warning noises about it. I was becoming completely burned out on the whole advertising industry - and, more importantly, becoming more and more impatient with the advertising audience.

The mission here is to inform and entertain the consumers, not make fun of them ... and the awareness that I was crossing that line is one of the reasons I stopped writing these columns in the first place. Basically I had stopped firing on just my intended target and was firing on anyone foolish enough to come near.

But the comments I got about the mustard segment made me aware that I'd have a fundamental problem even once I calmed down. Because several people wrote me that it was unreasonable of me to expect that the average consumer could pronounce "Maille" correctly, and that they felt that Lea and Perrins probably had good reason to put the pronunciation guide on the lid of the jar.

Personally, as I said in the original text, I'd be insulted by the assumption that I didn't know how to say the word. I don't like having my mistakes corrected in a humiliating fashion, but I like even less the assumption that I'm going to screw it up in the first place.

A number of the messages I got about the Mustard Incident carried it a step further, implying that I actually had no idea of the intelligence of the average consumer, that I was being either accidentally or willfully clueless about - and these are my correspondents' words, not mine - how stupid most people really are.

Fine. Perhaps most people are idiots. But I cannot work on that assumption. I have to have a certain baseline amount of faith in my fellow man in order to exist peacefully on this planet.

Apparently my friends do not need this same faith.

The final straw, as I said, was not my gaffe, nor my reaction to it. What really got my goat was when I went to my friends for a reality check and they all said, essentially, "Yes, you're an elitist. So are we. So is just about everyone you associate closely with. So what?"

This bothers me more than I can possibly say, because to me the idea that you're smarter or better than a lot of others is a concept that exists only to exclude, only to make a barrier around people you consider Worthy and not pay attention to anyone else. And frankly, we have too many of those already. Black people vs. white people. Technical people vs. blue-collar people. Corporate people vs. academia people. Rich people vs. poor people. Men vs. women. Children vs. adults. It's a wonder anyone can ever have a conversation with anyone else.

That reaction led me to stop writing these items in 1998. It continued to sit uncomfortably with me in 1999 and 2000 (note, from the archives, the pace of entries as compared to the earlier years). It eventually, among other reasons, led me to stop for good at the end of 2000. Now, in 2007, as I attempt to restart, I find that the caution below is more germane than ever:

I am working under the assumption that you understand what I'm talking about.

I am assuming you can figure out how to say "Maille" on your own, even if you don't already know. I am assuming that you know that sugar candies are fat-free foods by definition. I am assuming that you know that only animal-derived products can contain cholesterol. And I am assuming that when a label points out one of these obvious things to you, you get a little bit needled, like I do.

In short, I am assuming that many things which I consider basic knowledge are also basic knowledge for you.

I have a few friends who would say that is the elitist attitude, that it's elitist to assume that everyone is at least as smart as I am. Maybe they're right. Maybe I have it backwards.

But my kind of elitism is inclusionary - it assumes that everyone is in the club until proven otherwise - and the other kind of elitism is exclusionary. And to me that makes all the difference in the world.

As I said, sometimes it's a big temptation to point out someone's ignorance. Sometimes I want to pick someone up and shake them and say, "I can't believe you didn't know that!" But it's not a constructive thing to do. It makes them feel bad, it doesn't tell them why it might be important for them to know that information, and it doesn't really encourage them to learn about it. Every time I give in to the temptation, I feel hugely guilty about it afterwards.

There is a correct way to correct. And I try to do it. If you find something in one of these columns which is unclear, or which you don't understand, or where you think I'm assuming too much of most readers, then tell me - and I will do my best to explain, clarify, and/or backpedal in a gentle and constructive manner.

As I get older, I get less and less acidic. Even things which inspired great venom in me a few years ago are now merely greeted with quiet skepticism. Part of it is that I am finally learning that shooting my mouth off gets me in trouble, but the larger part is that I think there's just too much venom in the world already.

These columns will continue to be skeptical - after all, that's what they're about, making fun of advertising - but I hope never again nasty. If you see empty nastiness, point it out; it means I am due for a round of self-recrimination.

and now back to our program

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