Walking down Main Street in Northampton recently, I noticed several people passing by carrying white handled shopping bags. A woman walking a few steps in front of me, apparently also noticing the white shopping bags, said to her friend, "Oh, that reminds me; I need to stop at Bakery Normand for a few things." The noteworthy thing about this story is that our white handled shopping bags are not printed with our company name or marked in any way with our company logo or colors. We use a plain, no frills, white, handled, shopping bag for customers who need a convenient way to carry their purchases. Since we've used these bags for over 30 years, they have become, in and of themselves, the default, walking advertisement for our bakery. It was not planned that way, and, in fact, when we first opened our business, we spent a lot of money having all of our white bags, from the smallest to the largest shopping bag, printed with our logo in blue ink. I remember that we had to order so many tens of thousands of the bags that we had to store them in our home garage on wooden palettes. We simply didn't have the room for them at our small location at 44 Main Street.
The lesson is that less is often more, and that simple communications can actually speak volumes. It's a lesson that spending more on packaging does not make the product better, it just makes the product more seductive. And, of course, all that makes the product more expensive.
In a CBS Sunday Morning piece called "The Science Behind Pleasure Seeking", Yale psychologist Paul Bloom says that our brains can add layers of value to the things that give us pleasure, like food or drink, that go beyond the actual physical attributes of those things. He recalls a Stanford and Cal Tech experiment with wine drinkers. "Half the people are told they're drinking cheap plunk, the other half are told they're drinking something out of $100-$150 bottle," Bloom said. "It tastes better to them, if they THINK they're drinking from an expensive bottle. And it turns out that if they think they're drinking expensive wine, parts of the brain that are associated with pleasure and reward light up like a Christmas tree." The associations of values like higher price or fancy packaging or some nostalgic notion are a "sort of trick that only works on human beings." "Both my dog and me enjoy drinking water when we're thirsty, but I'm the one who cares about where the water came from - whether it's bottled water, or from the tap," Bloom said. "My dog doesn't care."
Ultimately, it does matter what's inside the bag. In the case of the Bakery, the bread should be wholesome, nutritious and of good value.
Is it important that the bread was baked using organic flour? One can debate its value to human health, and argue the notion that its exclusive use may not be scalable to feed a populous and hungry world. In fact, in an excellent article in the September/October 2011 issue of Orion Magazine titled "Evolve-a case for modernization as the road to salvation," authors Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus identify the ecotheology of Western elites in the developed North, who enjoy a privileged position in the modern world and make a fetish of green products and services (such as organic and local produce). They write: " The contradictions between the world as it is- filled with the unintended consequences of our actions- and the world as so many of us would like it to be results in a pseudorejection of modernity, a kind of postmaterialist nihilism. Empty gestures are the defining sacraments of this ecotheology".
In this same vein, does it matter that bread is baked in wood fired brick ovens? The application of heat to leavened dough represents historically the advancement of thermal technology to the baking process. In addition to the economy of any given heat source, its efficiency and environmental impact are of equally valid importance. The emissions of a wood fired oven is significant. It would be interesting to know what the environmental cost per loaf of bread is when wood fired brick ovens are used compared to the use of natural gas or electricity. And yet, ecotheology preaches that somehow the pre-industrial use of wood must be better. Like the higher priced bottle of wine in the Stanford experiment, the pleasure center of our brains is activated by the nostalgia, the anti-modern logic of wood fired, brick oven bread. To quote Shellenberger and Nordhaus again, "That the ecological elites hold themselves to a different standard while insisting that all are equal is yet another demonstration of their higher status, for they are thus unaccountable to reality."
So the next time you are shopping for bread, ask yourself if you are buying the product or the narrative surrounding, and perhaps masking, the product. Keep it simple and try putting the product in a plain, white, handled bag, both in your mind and in your hand.