Molding Americans: How Jell-O Advertising has Shaped (and Constrained) the Citizenry

Whether it is jiggling to hip hop music (JELLO) or soaking up alcohol before being devoured by college students (Jon), it would seem that Jell-O is a medium that simply absorbs and echoes the cultural fixations of its time. But upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that this unassuming substance has had a restrictive, even conforming effect on its consumers. There’s more than water and horse hooves in that colorful dessert alternative. Jell-O has informed the public’s understanding of what it means to be properly gendered and American.

A recurring theme in Jell-O’s advertising campaign can be termed, at best, aggressive patriotism, and at worst, ethnocentrism and xenophobia. In one of its early advertisements in 1925, the company fabricated nostalgia by associating their product with George Washington and the slogan “America’s Most Favorite Dessert.” The illustration also functions to class the gelatin by presenting Jell-O in dainty glass dishes on a silver tray, framed by toile wallpaper and dignified candlesticks. This innocuous reference to United States history would be taken to an extreme in years to come.

"Jell-O: America's Most Famous Dessert" c. 1925

“Jell-O: America’s Most Famous Dessert” c. 1925

Looking at a commercial released in 1958, the notion that a Chinese baby cannot consume Jell-O with chopsticks is loaded with cultural implications.

According to Inness, when the Korean War broke out in 1950, “…the anti-Chinese feelings that had been submerged during World War II reemerged”(Secret Ingredients 44). Assimilation, symbolized by the use of the spoon (“great Western invention”(horrorsnark)), is the necessary pre-cursor to eating the product. Jell-O has rendered itself literally inaccessible and inedible to foreigners clinging to their own traditions. If you want a piece of America, you have to play by their rules. One could easily reject this commercial as a reflection of the political climate of that historical moment, but a commercial released in December of 2012 would suggest otherwise.

Mayans are comfortably distant enough, and the tone is just playful enough, for the total invalidation of their culture (e.g. “Those are some pretty lame gifts. No wonder the gods decided to end the world.”(Adpressive)) to sit with American viewers. Note that the entire expedition is male, with the only white man serving as the leader and his racially ambiguous crew functioning as sherpas for the Jell-O. This humorous ad may not register as troubling compared to its 1958 predecessor, but the practices of a non-Western civilization are nonetheless being disavowed.

But all whites are not created equal in the eyes of Jell-O advertisers. According to Inness,

When picking a food, a girl was taught that aesthetics was more important than taste… Women were supposed to be concerned about appearance in all areas of their lives…Thus, cookbooks were not just teaching readers how to concoct a Jell-O salad; they were also subtly demonstrating how femininity was constituted. (Kitchen Culture in America 123-124)

"Now's the time for Jell-O" c. 1950

“Now’s the time for Jell-O” c. 1950

The Jell-O Company made this demonstration considerably less “subtle” in their 1950’s advertisement of a woman attempting (and failing) to emulate a thinner, more flexible female on her TV screen. The tagline “Now’s the time for Jell-O” makes the advertisers’ dissatisfaction with her body explicit.

"Now's the time for Jell-O" c. 1952

“Now’s the time for Jell-O” c. 1952

In a stylistically similar 1950’s advertisement, Jell-O promises to make a scrawny young boy a weightlifting champion. Thus, according to these images, the convenience gelatin has the magical, impossible power to both aid women in losing weight and help men gain muscle. By juxtaposing these visual texts, one exposes Jell-O’s commitment to gender ideals above the actual capabilities of its product.

According to Manton, “Each American can choose to make ‘kitchen-counter reforms,’… Each citizen individually can choose to “vote with your fork” each time she or he goes food shopping or eats out”(Manton 9). But what if individuals are being subliminally told that they are not full citizens because of their body, race, culture, or gender? It may only take moments to assemble and serve gelatin, but according to advertisers, one must prepare and mold oneself— an endeavor which takes considerably more effort. Jell-O’s advertisers have infused the seemingly limpid substance with exclusion and ethnocentrism. Deceit in the name of marketing is to be expected, but disenfranchisement cannot be tolerated, no matter how “convenient” it may be.

Work Cited

Adpressive. “JELL-O Funpocalypse : December 21st, 2012 TV Commercial.” YouTube. YouTube, 18 Dec 2012. Web. 19 July 2013.

horrorsnark. “Jello Commercial- Chinese Baby.” YouTube. YouTube, 28 Jun 2010. Web. 18 July 2013.

Inness, Sherrie. Secret Ingredients: Race, Gender, and Class at the Dinner Table. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.

Inness, Sherrie. Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Jell-O Company Inc.. “30533590: Jell-O Magazine Advert.” Illustration. 1952. The Advertising Archives. Web. 18 July 2013.

Jell-O Company Inc.. “Jell-O: America’s Most Famous Dessert.” Illustration. 1925. Emergence of Advertising in America: 1850-1920. Library of Congress. Web. 18 July 2013

Jell-O Company Inc.. Jell-O Advertisement. Illustration. n.d. Vintage Ad Browser. Web. 18 July 2013.

JELLO. “JELL-O Jiggle-It App.” YouTube. YouTube, 13 Sep 2011. Web. 18 July 2013.

Jon. “21 Jello Shot Recipes for College Students.” The Campus Companion. 19 November 2011. Web. 18 July 2013. <http://www.thecampuscompanion.com/party-lab/2011/11/19/21-jello-shot-recipes-college-students>

Manton, Catherine. Fed Up: Women and Food in America. Westport: Bergin & Garvey, 1999.

Undemocratic Desire: 21st Century Yogurt Commercials in the United States

In the last decade, yogurt commercials in the U.S. have been embedded with messages about gender, consumption, and love. Much like salad, chocolate, and low-fat cereal, the popular dairy product has been marketed specifically to women. According to Bell and Valentine, “… food has long ceased to be merely about sustenance and nutrition… Every mouthful, every meal, can tell us something about ourselves, and about our place in the world” (Bell and Valentine 3). I argue that yogurt commercials subliminally communicate messages used by advertisers nearly a century ago. These antiquated notions about women, food, and desire are perhaps most alarming because they have been skillfully hidden under the guise of contemporary female empowerment.

Looking first at this Yoplait advertisement from 2008, the scene indicates that eating yogurt is an acceptable form of consumption for females, in contrast to messages from decades past that “rarely portrayed women finding gratification in eating”(Parkin 37). However, this minor, 140 calorie-gain is inextricably intertwined with weight loss, thus undermining the notion that she is truly indulging. Furthermore, the fact that the befuddled husband cannot even see the yogurt intensifies the association between the product and women. How could a man be interested in something that is invisible to him? According to this advertisement, Yoplait is a woman’s secret.

Dannon Oikos took a slightly different approach in their marketing technique, by suggesting that yogurt is the manner in which women receive love and sexual gratification. According to Parkin, “…food advertisers created and reflected strong cultural associations between sex and food, including women’s use of it as an aphrodisiac”(Parkin 10) many years before Oikos conceived of their commercial. But the Greek yogurt company takes this association a step further by suggesting that not only can women substitute food for sex—they prefer it. The seductive John Stamos is promptly exchanged for a cup of Dannon Oikos, and with glee. Thus, the ad suggests a societal discomfort with female sexual desire, just as Yoplait depicted a disapproval of raw female hunger. Nineteenth century women would have considered “… any knowledge or display of appetite” to be “a sign of unbridled sexuality”(Inness 18). In this ad, I argue that her appetite is only acceptable because she rejects the sexual stimulus (Stamos), thus distinguishing her snack from sex.

In this 2012 Super Bowl commercial, the manner in which Oikos spokesperson, John Stamos, is head-butted indicates that the female has agency, but the reality is she has gravitated towards a product that he introduced to her. Thinking about the tactic from a meta-perspective, advertisements do much the same work, by introducing the product to consumers, but fooling them into thinking the purchase was their idea. There is also a common thread here with the Yoplait ad—yogurt is a woman’s territory, which she will defend when threatened. One must also consider the context of this commercial—the super bowl, an event in which men do the head butting. Therefore, Oikos advertisers are suggesting that when women are denied their yogurt, they are no longer properly feminine.

Dannon Light n’ Fit advertisers chose to draw attention to the fact that the American mother isn’t receiving the care and attention she deserves—and yogurt can fill that void. The Italian fairy yogurt-mother of sorts is flamboyant and comical enough that the ad seems self-aware of her silliness, and yet the viewer still receives the same take-home message: eating yogurt will make a woman more physically appealing (be it in the form of a haircut or otherwise), and without it she is a sub-par female.

Finally, much like Campbell’s soup commercials that “co-opted suffrage messages, diluting the power and significance of women’s political goals to further their own profit margin”(Parkin 69), Yoplait conflates their product with freedom. It is vital to note the specific comparisons the bridesmaids make to their low-calorie dairy cups. They are “not-catching-the-bouquet-good” and “burning-this-dress-good.” And yet, the pair simultaneously praise “cute” best men and wish for ushers who aren’t shorter than them. These may be single women, but they are still long for heteronormative interactions with stereotypically masculine men. Ironically, eating their yogurt with their feet on the table renders them immobile from actively pursuing their desires.

With these visual texts in mind, how can women in the United States move forward? According to Manton, “Together women must re-establish a more positive, constructive relationship with both food and their bodies, and an environment that makes positive constructive living possible”(Manton 7). It is not simply a matter of boycotting yogurt or confronting manipulative advertisers. American women must be able to discern, and believe, that yogurt cannot love them back, and furthermore that food is an inadequate and inappropriate substitute for the actual object(s) of their sexual or emotional longing.

Work Cited

Bell, David, and Gill Valentine. Consuming Geographies: We Are Where We Eat. New York: Routeledge, 1985.

Commercialsadverts. “Warm Coat—Dannon Light ‘n Fit TV Commercial Ad.” YouTube. YouTube, 18 Apr 2013. Web. 3 July 2013.

Inness, Sherrie. Kitchen Culture in America: Popular Representations of Food, Gender, and Race. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

Manton, Catherine. Fed Up: Women and Food in America. Westport: Bergin &amp; Garvey, 1999.

OikosYogurt. “Oikos Greek Yogurt ‘Plane Kiss’ TV Commercial.”Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 9 Jan 2013. Web. 3 July 2013.

Palrip. “Andrea Rosen Yoplait Commercial.”Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 11 Jan 2008. Web. 3 July 2013.

Parkin, Katherine. Food is Love: Advertising and Gender Roles in Modern America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006.

Thecrazyitalian717. “Dannon Oikos Greek Yogurt Super Bowl 2012 Commercial!” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 10 Feb 2012. Web. 3 July 2013.

Xglp. “Leisha Hailey Yoplait Commercial.” Online video clip. YouTube. YouTube, 5 Nov 2008. Web. 3 July 2013.