I heard a sharp intake of breath, quickly stifled. It’s the kind of thing that being a parent has taught me not to ignore…but also not to let on that I’ve noticed. I slid a sidelong glance that direction. A knot of little nieces and nephews huddled over by the food table.
Whew. It wasn’t my kids up to something.
I drifted over, all casual, to see what was going on. They were debating something in heated whispers. The oldest of them, just six, seemed to be warning the three younger ones. They looked up at her with wide eyes.
“It’s a trick,” I heard her say, and the others nodded solemnly.
“What’s up,” I asked, my own voice hushed. As their ‘silly’ uncle who tells the ‘funny stories,’ I have special privileges. I’m on their team.
“Look at this,” the six-year-old said, voice heavy with suspicion. “Somebody put out vegetables AND candy.” She gestured to a festive tray. Sure enough, it brimmed with baby carrots, red pepper slices, broccoli florets and…
“M&Ms,” the littlest kid breathed. Her chubby fingers reached for them where they sat next to a pile of chocolate Santas and peanut butter cups. The six-year-old, her sister, blocked her.
“No,” she said. “It’s a trick. It must be.”
And then I remembered. They hardly ever have candy at her house. Her father has had type-one diabetes since he was a little kid, so they’re very sugar conscious. Sweets are rare treats for them in a household where dessert is fruit, at best.
“So…What do you think they’re up to?” I asked. She narrowed her eyes, glancing around the room.
“I don’t know,” she confided. “It must be some kind of a test, setting out candy right next to the good-for-you stuff.” And just like that, she had identified the conflict that shapes our interaction with almost every food brand.
Virtue versus pleasure is the central conflict of our relationship with food. You just have to think about the difference between vegetables and M&Ms to understand how this conflict works and how it impacts people every day, in every decision they make about anything they eat. Am I choosing to eat wholesome, healthy fuel for the body or delightful, pleasurable treats for the soul? While raw veggies hold one powerful pole-position and M&Ms hold the other, most foods live somewhere in the tension between good-for-me virtue and fun-for-me pleasure—just like most people do.
In the world of story a conflict like this—a struggle between two opposed but powerful benefits—will generally suggest one of three possible meanings. If the storyteller leans toward the virtue side of the struggle they might say, “Virtue is its own reward.” Saying that doesn’t eliminate or overlook the importance of pleasure; it suggests that there is a kind of pleasure to be derived from being virtuous. If, on the other hand, the storyteller leans toward the pleasure side of the struggle they might say, “Live in the moment.” That point of view doesn’t ignore virtue; it suggests that enjoying yourself and making the most of every second is its own kind of virtue. The third position is at the maximum conflict point between the two. Torn between virtue and pleasure, the storyteller might say, “All things in moderation,” suggesting that both virtue and pleasure are valuable and useful taken in the right dose and approached with control. The funny thing about these meanings is that, even though they are opposed, we can accept that all three are true.
Now think about food brands. You’ve got your Kashis and V8s, Green Giants and Cheerios on the one side, your Jack in the Boxes, Cokes, Cheetos and Snickers on the other and scads of brands in between. All of them fall somewhere on that virtue versus pleasure spectrum, and a few of them (generally the ones with the most compelling stories) manage to articulate their viewpoint about what they believe about how to live in the conflict.
Most food brands I’ve encountered in the twenty years we’ve been doing this work, however, are desperate for people to believe that the brand can make the virtue versus pleasure conflict go away. Seeing that people have a hard time figuring out what to eat, the brand pretends to solve that problem for them. Instead of saying, “Virtue is its own reward,” or “Live in the moment,” or even “All things in moderation,” the brand says, “You can have it all.” The brand claims to perfectly satisfy both needs without sacrificing either.
But how consistent is that with your experience of life? When is the last time you actually had it all? “You can have it all” isn’t a truth—it’s a wish. It seems too good to be true because it’s too good to be true. In reality, everything you eat will require navigating the tension between virtue and pleasure.
Brands that embrace the conflict and suggest a point of view about how to cope with it come across as more authentic than brands that pretend that they have solved a problem that will never go away. The M&M characters, for example, wind up embarrassed, endangered or on the verge of literally being eaten because they can’t control their passions. Although the brand never says the word “moderation,” it tells a moderation story illustrated comically by negative example. That story reinforces the message that M&Ms communicates with their product. The candy-coated chocolate, while firmly anchored on the pleasure side of the spectrum, offers pleasure in tiny little morsels. When you hold one in your hand, it feels like moderation.
Back at the holiday party, my little nieces stared sadly at the candy. The two-year-old looked like she was about to cry.
“Do you think it’s maybe ok to have a little of both this one time because it’s a party?” I suggested. The six-year-old’s eyes widened, shifting this way and that as the gears turned in her head.
“They are very small,” she said, eyes now back on the M&Ms.
“Especially if you have some veggies, too,” I told her.
Half an hour later, the kids literally bounced off a wall next to me in a shrieking pack, their faces smeared with chocolate all the way to their eyebrows. Getting your kids to eat right—it’s a constant struggle. Fortunately, I’m only their uncle.