Foods themselves might be a mouthful but the accompanying language used to describe foods can say a mouthful. Guy Cook, an applied linguist and Professor of Language in Education at King’s College, explains, “We are influenced by what is said about food offered to us, as much as by the food itself.” Part of his research has explored the influence of language in the marketing of organic food.
In 1973, about fifty self-described hippie farmers in Santa Cruz started the California Certified Organic Farmers. It was the first organic certification program in the United States and was perceived to be the embodiment of a counter-culture movement. During the 1980s, organic food expanded from being solely counter-cuisine to encompass what some organic farmers describe as ‘yuppie chow’.
In Fast food/organic food: Reflexive tastes and the making of 'yuppie chow', Julie Guthman observes, “It was a young woman from Berkeley who forged the unlikely connection between this early culinary history, the 1960s’ counter-culture, and the nouveau riche of the 1980s.” At her acclaimed restaurant, Chez Panisse, Alice Waters emphasized the use of fresh, locally sourced, seasonal ingredients. One of the ingredients featured at Chez Panisse was organic baby greens. They were acquired from self proclaimed hippie farmer Warren Weber, who opted to call the greens by the French term mesclun. On the menu, Waters included the adjective “organic” to describe the mesclun. Though it may not have been conscious or even intentional, Guthman explains that Waters’ choice to use the term as a modifier institutionalized a certain set of meanings for organic.
Consumers and producers of organic food has continued to evolve over time. In recent years, large corporations have joined the smaller farms and independent producers more closely associated with the image of organic foods. Sometimes described as Big Food meets Big Organic, companies including Coca-Cola, Kraft, General Mills, PepsiCo, and ConAgra are all capitalizing off the trend and making their own products labeled as organic.
How has the growth and changes in the organic food market been reflected in their marketing language? Cook, along with Matt Reed and Alison Twiner, examined the language used to promote organic food in Great Britain. Over one year, they researched the thoughts of those who designed it and the public’s response using a combination of techniques including corpus analysis, focus group discussions, and interviews.
As part of their project, the researchers analyzed the packaging. For example, they examined organic baby new potatoes produced by Tesco, one of the largest grocery and retail stores in the United Kingdom. They found the label included sensual and tactile imagery, alliterative language like “specially selective” and vague claims such as stating they “work with nature.” The label also included a picturesque and pastoral image of a rolling green countryside that seemed to be more evocative of England than the potatoes’ stated place of origin, Egypt.
Organic labels also often included a narrative of production, using a farmer’s name and other information about their farms. Through a corpus comparison of words on packaging on both organic and non-organic products, the researchers also noted that keywords on non-organic products tended to incorporate imagery associated with the kitchen, whereas organic foods emphasized farms and the point of production.
It was unclear whether the promotional strategies of larger corporations influenced the smaller producers or vice versa. Either way, the researchers found, “Whether produced by supermarkets, small politically committed producers, or environmentalist campaign groups, the language used tends to be poetic, vague, dialogic, narrative, and emotive, with an emphasis upon bucolic imagery and consumer self-interest.”
Interviews with persons responsible for writing text accompanying organic products revealed there was an assumption that the consumers were more emotional than rational and more interested in “feeling” than fact. Despite this, the study found consumers may not be as easily manipulated as may have been believed. Focus group discussions with individuals from diverse ages, socio-economic statuses and backgrounds indicated there may be a critical resistance to marketing language overall, also that the participants were did not fully trust supermarkets in general (or organic alternatives) and indicated a sense of fatalism and cynicism about the food chain.