Teeth

The new thing is interdental brushes, brushes for getting in between the teeth.

‘But I already floss,’ I told my dentist, causing him to snort derisively.

‘Floss? Tell me friend, would you clean your car with waxed string?’

‘I don’t own…’

‘Your oven then, would you clean your oven with waxed string?’

I shook my head.

‘Of course you wouldn’t. That would be crazy. You’d use a brush.’

I considered this. ‘Or a sponge.’

He leaned all the way forward, forcing me back in the reclining chair.

‘You wouldn’t clean your teeth with a sponge.’ He pressed two packets of the tiny brushes into my hand and smiled. ‘Pay at the desk. See you in six months.’

A google search of ‘Most Common Nightmares’ shows that teeth crumbling, popping or otherwise cascading from the mouth is a fear that haunts the sleep of many people globally. This must be a spectacular boon to the dental industry, and in the waiting room I kept a lookout for advertising that might be employing some kind of subliminal effect. I suppose I was hoping for posters with slogans like “dream of white teeth” or the kind of optical illusions that look innocuous enough at first glance but turn into hideous death masks in your peripheral vision. But, nothing doing. Mainly the advertising showed women, twenty-somethings smiling coquettishly, thirty-somethings minding children, older women drinking coffee without difficulty. One, two, three, the stages of woman; young, mother, elderly. It’s hard not to infer the supposed trajectory of the average woman’s life from these images, and I’m left wondering at what age the painless consumption of high temperature drinks will become one of my chief concerns.  

I paid for the appointment and my new interdental brushes at the desk. The receptionist tried to add some impulse purchases to my basket, but her pitch was less effective than the dentist’s. Partly it’s her lack of formal training that lets her down; she can’t replicate the impression the dentist gives, of having been burdened with terrible knowledge, but also it’s her teeth. They’re too white, too straight. They’re so artificial that they look inexpert, like the kind of spray-tan that leaves the skin melonoma-orange. Maybe in California, where citizens are blinded by overbright sunshine, maybe there she could get away with teeth like these, but here, in Britain, her teeth are whiter than anything else we have around. Teeth like these make Britons realise that what we’ve been calling white all this time was actually a pale grey, and it’s this woman’s fault; she’s showing us up. But what really gets me worked up is that she’s obscurely proud, acting like she’s achieved something. She has the bearing of those lost souls who get addicted to body building and parade their hideous disfigurements as if they were something you should want, as if they were sex-symbols. I see them at the gym sometimes, watching me doing mild cardio and laughing at my skinny arms, while they sweat and hydrate, looking like a foreskin full of marbles.

On my way out of the clinic I hold the door open for an older man who’s clearly in for the works. His head is in a wrap-around brace, lips held in a stiff snarl by foam padding and hooks. Each one of his teeth to the molars is visible, streaked with rust looking stains, but worse than the colour is the texture; they’re porous, clearly porous and seemingly unrooted, sitting on the surface of the gums as precipitately as a lilo floating on the surface of a swimming pool. I can’t imagine what combination of smoking, red wine and sugar is required to do this to a set of teeth, but I note that he’s reasonably well dressed. He doesn’t look unclean. No strong odours. Can a lax brushing habit really get that bad, I wonder? Or maybe he’s an alcoholic? I’m suddenly gripped by an urge to accompany this guy to the dentist’s office. I want to point at the suppurating hole, with its tooth stumps and what I imagine will be a rigid and flaking tongue and ask, how? Exactly how? Could this be me? Was this preventable, or did this guy just fall foul of the Gods? I brush before bed, and I quit smoking; I have my mouthwash, I have my interdentals, I’ve got, god help me, the toothbrush that could double as a sex toy- tell me that this couldn’t be me.

But obviously I don’t do any of those things. This guy has it bad enough, without strangers using him as a yardstick for decay, and if I go back up there the dentist will use his condition to sell me more chemicals and even tinier brushes. I content myself to believe that the man was a plant; he’s the subliminal message telling me to keep shining my pearly whites, and he’s the nightmare creature who coughs handfuls of chipped and bloody enamel into all our outstretched palms at night.

Crisps or Chips: the Atlantic Question, or, Mythological Potatoes

It is hard to imagine a company selling a product and making no effort to distinguish itself from its rivals. This is true even for products like electricity where the quality doesn’t vary, and in those cases it is the brand rather than the product which bears the weight of marketability. While a cleaning product can claim to make whites whiter, or a parcel service can offer next-day-delivery, an electricity provider cannot promise to supply better electricity than any of its competitors. In lieu of quality product it must offer quality service, better customer support, lower prices or perhaps more environmentally-sound sources.

Similarly, there are products which can vary in quality, but only by very tiny margins. Consider crisps, or ‘potato chips’ as they are sometimes called; there are many competing brands vying for a stake in a lucrative market where costs are low and mark-up is high. The product itself consists of thin potato slices either baked or fried in a savoury flavouring, often high in salt but also embracing meaty ‘umami’ flavours. Every ingredient and aspect of production is cheap, a standard bag of crisps containing less than one potato, and selling, in the UK, for around seventy pence.

The reason then for any manufacturer with a ready supply of potatoes to enter this market is clear, but how to differentiate one crisp brand from another when there is so little room for manoeuvre in production? Well-established brands often introduce new flavours, usually with some sense of novelty humour about them, but these seldom last long, and are more likely an exercise in brand awareness than research and development. Other standard variations in the formula include the thickness of the crisps themselves or the way the potato is sliced, i.e. ‘ridge’ or ‘crinkle’ cut, but it’s probably fair to say that the mould has been cast for crisps.

made to last?

made to last?

There is a degree of stratification with some brands, ranging from extremely cheap crisps which are perceived to be low quality, to luxury crisps. This kind of stratification exists to a greater degree with bread, another product that is cheap to produce, and most supermarkets offer a range starting from a very cheap form of bleach-white, dough-textured bread that costs a fraction of the price of the loaves that contain seeds or use specialist dough. This range of quality has to exist in the market, and probably owes less to the actual cost or difficulty of production than to the presence of consumers who will buy the cheapest available product regardless. Which is to say, generally, cheap products exist to be purchased by consumers who want to spend less; expensive products exist to be purchased by consumers who want to spend more; everything else is a measure of the consumer’s ability to discern value.

Crisps however, due to the overwhelming cheapness of production and the status as a ‘snack’ rather than a ‘food’, cannot support quite the same complexity of stratification. Bread constitutes a comparatively substantial part of the average diet, and its quality and price can be linked to the relative nutritional value of the ingredients, while crisps are non-essential, often listed with chocolate and carbonated drinks as items the conscientious parent may want to keep out of their child’s lunchbox.

So, as with electricity, it falls to brand differentiation to enable companies to claim a stake in the market. There is a growing trend to increase the caché of a given flavours supposed ingredients, exemplified by Walker’s decision in 2006 to rebrand its ‘Beef and Onion’ crisps as ‘Steak and Onion’ crisps, without significantly altering the recipe. More recently Walkers have introduced a new range, ‘Market Deli’, that deviates from their traditional product in several ways pertaining to presentation, and few pertaining to product. They use low pastel colours in the packaging instead of the usual garish palette of a Walkers crisp packets, and a handwritten font to denote craftsmanship. Their claim to Mediterranean ingredients, which they stress by unnecessarily translating them into Italian- even though this product isn’t available in Italy- suggests time and effort went into sourcing them. They even attempt to reinforce the reality of these ingredients with a photograph and a drawing of what those ingredients might look like.

pictured: authenticity

pictured: authenticity

The new name also cries out to be seen as something separate from other Walkers offerings, the marketing executives having chosen two words- Market and Deli- which, when connected to food, signify wholesomeness, awareness of quality and perhaps a sort of middle class fussiness. Delis in the UK are places to buy food if you enjoy greater than average free time and income, the benefits being a certain exoticness of produce, and a higher quality than the supermarkets. Markets meanwhile generally denote locality in their produce, and value for money, which may be why the two titles Walkers have picked sit together so uneasily. Somewhere along the design process it seems that they have recognised this themselves, and acknowledged it by putting the word ‘Market’ in a sensible, erstwhile, sans-serif font, while the word ‘Deli’ is a boisterous, looping handwritten scrawl.

Tension between locality and exoticness may even be a central issue to the Walkers company, which, though having started in Britain in the 1940’s, and carrying many British associations, became a part of the American Frito-Lay brand in 1989. It may be as a result then that this product, though likely to be described as a bag of ‘crisps’ by the consumer who will purchase it, has become a bag of ‘potato chips’ according to its own packaging. Perhaps this is a part of the advertising of Market Deli as a wholesome and continental treat, rather than a working man’s pub snack or something for a child’s lunchbox, an attempt to boost potato chips into the realm of ‘proper food’, to differentiate between potato chips and crisps, two separate categories of food and not-food. This of course is likely to fail, partly because there is no difference between the two categories, but also because there already exists in the UK a potato based foodstuff called chips, that which an American would call fries.

chips or fries? Never Surrender

chips or fries? Never Surrender

For Walkers to successfully manoeuvre Britons into calling ‘crisps’ ‘chips’, they would also have to get Britons to call ‘chips’ ‘fries’, a move that seems highly unlikely to occur.Then again, the American Kettle Chips are well established in the UK and only ever refer to themselves as chips in their marketing. Open a bag and you may well offer someone a kettle chip, but only as long as the association with the brand is present- pour them into a bowl, and they turn into just crisps. Tyrell’s insist that they are crisps, and probably consider it a matter of national pride, keen as they are to stress their Englishness. Lesser known brand ‘Burts’ are not as bold, choosing Britishness over contentious Englishness, despite their Devonshire mailing address; but have perversely decided that they make ‘potato chips’ too.

It’s unclear why Walkers have chosen to include their own branding on the front of a package that is clearly trying to distance itself from their other products. The Walkers logo, another font in a dizzy mess of contrary fonts, is reminiscent of the Pepsi logo, PepsiCo being the owner of Frito-Lay. This is another message, one of international brands and giant corporate interests, that strongly conflicts with the connotations of both Markets and Delis, those bastions of small independent businesses. It would make more sense for Walkers to shy away from their involvement in Market Deli as much as is possible, in the same way that the coca-cola corporation is less than upfront about its involvement in certain other soft drinks that might be damaged by the association.

he-hem

he-hem

But instead Walkers have chosen to highlight the connection, in a move that does at least as much to expose the farce of this rebrand as the silly name, or the false continental association; as any well-travelled consumer will be aware, crisps are not as popular in other parts of Europe, and Walkers doesn’t operate outside the UK.

So, are Walkers participating in a general effort to help crisps shift their emphasis from being a potato conduit for salty or meaty flavours, to becoming like meals in themselves? Potato chips with Balsamic Vinegar of Modena does sound a lot like a starter in an Italian restaurant. Consider Tyrell’s, Sea Salt and Cider Vinegar. Both Salt and Vinegar are cheap, abundant commodities, and require qualifiers in order to carry any value. Cider vinegar is one option, and we’ve seen balsamic vinegar, but there’s also the more homely malt vinegar for the down-to-earth, football supporting McCoys. Another Market Deli flavour is Potato Chips with Flame Grilled Spanish Chorizo with Roasted Onions, which is the full restaurant-ready package; You have ingredients, Potato, Onion and Chorizo, literally forming meat and two veg; you have the place of origin, Spain; and you have methods of preparation, roasting and flame grilling.

spot the difference

pictured: not crisps

Kettle Chips are more vague about their method of preparation, telling me that they are hand cooked by chefs, which adds no obvious benefit to the experience of eating them but does act as a qualifier for the humble potato in the same manner that the words ‘Sea’ and ‘Cider’ improve ‘salt’ and ‘vinegar’. Tyrell’s are not only hand-cooked but include a serving suggestion, “perfect with a bit of battered cod”, although it’s unclear if we are supposed to take this seriously. On the back of my packet of balsamic vinegar crisps, I find tasting notes, telling me that the slices of potato are delicious, cut thicker and cooked longer, with the delicate sweetness of Aceto Balsamico di Modena for a rich, velvety and smooth flavour. It seems here that Walkers are drawing less on the vocabulary of food and have now started to borrow from that other great middle class signifier, wine. There is in fact an entire snack range produced by the company ‘Tayto’ called ‘Velvet Crunch’, erroneous juxtapositions be damned. Why potato products should benefit from being thought of as velvety or smooth, the prime marketing adjectives of toilet paper, is a mystery; how dried potato slices could achieve this is mysterious as well, although it does say on my packet of Market Deli, that they need to be tasted to be believed. They are not wrong.