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.
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)
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.
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.
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.