Generic Generics

Back in the eighties, when I was making my way in the world all alone for the first time, generic products had become quite the thing. It seemed like every grocery store had at least one aisle where all the items were packaged in stark, black and white, no-nonsense boxes and cans and bags. And they were dirt cheap. You could get anything from coffee to paper towels to tuna to corn flakes.

Theoretically, the money that companies saved by not having to advertise and promote these products, and even, one assumes, the savings of not using colorful, eye catching packages, was passed on to the consumer. In addition, some products were sold below market value to draw customers in.

In most cases, the ingredients listed on these generic products were identical to their name brand counterparts. It was usually pretty easy to tell that this food was actually put out there by those same companies. Every single element about it was shaped the same. But you could save a ton of money by buying generic.

Unfortunately, generic food came with certain side effects. First and foremost, there was the embarrassment factor. When you filled your cart with these black and white products, you were telling the world that you were poor. As a struggling young adult, my kitchen cabinets were filled with them. I made it a point to make sure the cabinet doors were closed when people came to visit.

And then there was this underlying distrust of the food itself. Even if the ingredients were identical, this little voice in your head would go, “Why are they not taking ownership of their product? Are they ashamed? Are they trying to get rid of substandard food? Am I eating dumpster quality pasta or something? Who do I sue if I find a dead mouse in there?”

Generic food got the reputation of not being as good as the name brand stuff, even though in most cases people could not tell them apart in blind taste tests. There were a few exceptions, though. Everyone I knew agreed that generic macaroni and cheese was the best. Go figure.

Generic products have evolved over the years. They’re now kind of generic, but not. They have the pretty packaging. They even have a brand, sort of. They proudly sit on the shelves right beside the major players, instead of being relegated to a shameful little aisle of their own. Their labels reflect the store brand of the particular grocer that you frequent. That way, they can still benefit from a reputation, and yet not waste their profit margins on product-specific promotions and advertising. And we all can pretend we’re buying something “legitimate” that isn’t “for poor people.”

Win/win, I suppose. But it sure makes you realize how taken in we are by reputation and colorful ink. Still, in this day and age, when we are pelted with imagery everywhere we turn, I sometimes miss the plain, colorless simplicity of the generics of my youth. Especially the macaroni and cheese.

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