This article is a part of the Green Thumbery series, where everyday gardening meets history and science.
I have a confession to make: When I was a kid, I hated avocados. "Zaboca" as they are called in Trinidad (and maybe elsewhere in the Caribbean) were mushy and gross, in my young, uninformed opinion. They just didn’t taste like anything. Plus, I believed my parents ate some weird things in general. I wanted hamburgers and french fries like they served on television; those kids weren’t eating saltfish or shatine (that would jackfruit to most of you). I still don’t really like either of those things, but I relish avocados. And to give my folks credit, looking back now, this fancy trend of avocado toast? Yeah, my mom—and probably most of the Caribbean—was eating that twenty years ago.
The thing is that I wouldn’t have been alone in my aversion to this fruit. While avocados were popular in California, that wasn’t true for the rest of the country. In the beginning of the 20th-century, they were called “alligator pears.” Their bumpy, olive skin connected them to those denizens of the swamp, and it’s shape resembled, well, a pear.
They had a marketing problem.
It was an unfortunate name, and the California Avocado Grower’s Exchange—the American producers for avocados as Mexican imports of the fruit were banned in 1914—blamed it for lagging sales. On top of that, they had anglicized the consumption of the fruit: they weren’t considering the consumption of the fruit in the context of Mexican dishes where it might be complementary and enjoyable, but tried to peddle it as exotic luxury that could be put out for guests.
Along these lines, the California Avocado Grower’s Exchange launched a petition to change the name of the fruit, formally. They were pushing to get back to the cultural roots of avocados: The word “avocado” is derived from the Aztec “ahuacacuahatl.” This renaming was meant to further exoticize the product, lending credence to the idea that it was a special treat.
That was all well and good until nutrition experts began to promote a low-fat diet. The public didn’t differentiate between saturated fats, which were target of this movement, and monounsaturated fats, which are “good” fats. Avocados came under fire.
So the avocado growers rallied. They funded research and put out studies meant to extoll the virtues of the fruit. They leaned on the fat-friendly Mediterranean diet, and ran television ads. they skated by into the nineties, but sales still lagged. People simply didn’t know how to eat the fruit. They weren’t waiting for it to ripen; the growers began to educate supermarkets on the difference between a ripened fruit. It was around this time they hired Hill & Knowlton, a public relations firm. Their mission was to make avocado an everyday, accessible item to American shoppers.
Do you remember Mr. Ripe Guy? I’ve searched high and low for an image, but sadly, he does not seem to have survived in the annals of the Internet. He was basically a mascot for the fruit He drove an Avocado-colored Mazda and carried avocados in a basket. He was there to drive awareness. In the mid-nineties, he also gained a human mate via a national competition. Ms. Ripe was to be selected from contestants who best represented the California lifestyle ethos of healthy eating and wellness.
The turning point for avocados was their integration with the Super Bowl. A recipe contest featuring favorites from NFL players and their families. The firm hit hard with handing out guacamole samples and hyping up the potential for the winning recipe to potentially predict the winner of the Super Bowl. The public’s investment and interest in the Super Bowl cemented guacamole as a snack item, giving the avocado a foothold it needed. Access to avocados also increased as the previous ban on the import of this item was lifted in 1997, and fruits from Michoacan began to flow across the border.
In recent years, the popularity of the avocado has only grown. The health benefits—now well established and widely touted—make a hot commodity. The most recent (2016) shopper segmentation data from the Hass Avocado Board tells us that:
- Avocados are mostly purchased by 18-44 year olds, who comprise 47% of buyers; the largest share of these buyers are situated in 2-person households.
- The top two income ($70,000 - $100,000+) groups constitute the other half of buyers.
- Married households represent 72% of avocado purchases.
- White households account for 72% of avocado purchases.
- Non-Hispanic households account for 76% of avocado purchases.
- Households without children buy more avocados.
As of March 2017, the average price of an avocado based on retail scan data was $1.25, up $.26 from February, and a total of 31 million had been sold.
As with any instance of supply-and-demand with a crop, supply is held to the whims of the season. And avocado trees are alternate bearing, which means that they have large harvests one year and smaller ones in the year following. It also takes a year for the fruit to reach maturity.
By itself, this is fine. But Bloomberg is reporting that California production is down 44%—clearly the lingering effects of last year’s drought in San Diego. A 22lb box of Hass Avocados is selling for about $27, which is more than double the price at this time last year. It’s the highest it’s been in 19 years. On top of that more avocados are going to Europe and China. It's basics economics: high demand and low supply means a price surge, and fewer bowls of guacamole.
At the end of the day, avocados have a place on today’s table thanks in part to a tireless campaign to redefine and redraft their identity. Some of it was misguided, some of it was weird and some of it was good. That is the nature of advertising. What matters is that you think avocados are tasty and necessary and not gross and mushy, and you put them in your baskets. All in all, I would say that avocados owe a credit to advertising.
How do you eat avocados? Comments have been disabled on Anthropology in Practice, but you can always join the community on Facebook.
Bloomberg (2017), "Guacamole prices to jump as avocado shortage sparks record prices.” (Link)
Hass Avocado Board (Link)
The Atlantic (2015), “The Selling of the Avocado.” (Link)
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Also in the Green Thumbery Series:
The American Obsession with Lawns
What can the first weeds tell us?
A Garden Series and Winter Sowing
Image credit: Unsplash, Pexels (CC BY-SA 2.0)