Friday, August 4, 2006

Betty Crocker's Egg

I meant to post this a few days ago when it was first shown to me. Better late than never, eh? There was an article on Slashdot about the evolution of the Netflix envelope. It wasn't that part that I found interesting. It was the comment that was originally pointed out to me.

The comment cites an article talking about Betty Crocker cake mixes back in the 50's, that required the home cook to add only one ingredient: water. Sales were poor until they were advised to modify the recipe to also require an egg. Sales soared. The theory is that the housewives who were baking the cakes felt guilty that they were deceiving their husband, guests, etc with a cake that looked like it took all day, when in fact all they had to do was add water. The addition of the egg supposedly made them feel like they were doing actual work. It makes me think about modern cake mixes which require the addition of 3 eggs, plus oil and water. Maybe housewives had a lot of guilt to take care of?

The article suggests that adding the egg is a form of mind control. Freudian, even. *Queue the Paranoia Music* My first inclination is that it's just a brilliant form of advertising. One, I might note, that doesn't seem to be as effective today. Some years ago, a certain company intruced an easy mac & cheese product that required only water and a very short time in the microwave. This differs of course from the current model popular with kids, which requires the addition of butter and milk. Being the ever-so-adverturous foodie, with a ready supply of said product for sale in the break room at work, I decided to try one out. It was truly magnificent to think that somebody could screw up such a simple dish so badly. There's a reason for the dish's recent "yellow death" moniker.

Still, it makes me wonder. We all know that this sort of thinking is prevelant in today's advertising society. For those people, like me, who watch shows like Food Network's Unwrapped, we know that food companies are pretty open about what sorts of mentalities they're targeting, and how. For a good couple of years or so after the September 11 incident, there was a big push towards comfort food. A lot of people wanted to drown their worries and sorrows in a big old bowl of mashed potatoes. Food Network made a big deal out of comfort food for months, and even had a "Couch Potato Weekend", all about potatoes, with interstitials by Alton Brown. Since this was the time I was in culinary school, I heard a lot about comfort food. The classes didn't focus on it at all, but when we talked about current food trends, there was a buzz about it.

Of course, this crosses over to other areas too. When I was a little programmer, writing four-line programs in BASIC on my TRS-80, I thought I was the bomb. Then I discovered Pascal, which managed somehow to get by without line numbers. Then I picked up Visual Basic, and fortunately found Perl soon after. Soon I was sneering with my Perl buddies at VB programmers. Then a new language came on the scene, something called PHP, which was also to be sneered at. But the PHP programmers liked that they could toss together quick and simple websites with little training. Soon, the PHP programmers began to put together larger websites, some good, most horrible. It became a buzzword. Perl was regarded as an old and featureless language, even though most of my Perl buddies could code circles around the few programmers that I knew that would admit to programming in PHP. One programmer I worked with had several ideas over which languages were better and faster to write in than Perl. He was fired after four weeks, for lack of productivity.

Now when I tell people I write in Perl, they sneer at me, or at least lightly mock me, while they sit and try to upgrade their old Lisp systems to Java. Programmers now like to put things in their project names that represent the language it was written in, or the platform it was written for. One of the first that I can think of is the famous MP3 player, WinAMP. Open source programmers love putting "G" at the beginning of their project names, to represent GNU or Gnome. I've had more than one Perl hacker tell me that they thought of putting Perl in their project name, but reconsidered when they realized that there are people out there that would refuse to use it, based only on the fact that it was written in Perl. They would rather get their project out there, gain popularity, and then say when asked, "oh, it was written in Perl." By that point, their project would already be in common use, and people wouldn't have so much of a stigma to go off of.

So programmers play the same type of game with each other than Betty Crocker was playing with the egg. They look at their audience, and try to figure out which features to push, even if they know those truly aren't the greatest features. The big feature of Betty's cake mix was convenience. But nobody wanted it unless they could add an egg too. I once read an article on how to write a food blog. It suggested that nobody would want to read a food blog without photos. The big feature of the blog, the one that people read it for, is written content. But if you don't have photos, nobody wants to read the content. And here I am, running a food blog, spending half of this article talking tech, which will surely alienate the non-geek half of my readers (sorry about that, guys), and I'm not even going to post a photo. It's a funny world we live in.

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