Opinionista Marelise Van Der Merwe 9 February 2018

The Other News Round-Up: When the Chips are Down

Each week, Daily Maverick brings you some of the lesser-reported news of the world. This week: lady chips, and Elon Musk’s space car.

Branding has been challenging the bounds of conventional travel this week.

While Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster has slightly overshot its intended trajectory beyond Mars’ orbit, PepsiCo is still firmly on Earth, choosing instead to challenge the laws of physics in a metaphorical way. They’re indulging in some good old-fashioned back-pedalling.

If you haven’t heard yet: lady chips are no longer on the cards. Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo, which owns Doritos, originally said on the Freakonomics podcast that women would “love to” do the same as men and “lick their fingers with great glee” or “pour the little broken pieces [at the bottom of the bag] into their mouth”, but don’t, because “they don’t like to crunch too loudly in public” and apparently “they don’t lick their fingers generously and they don’t like to pour the little broken pieces and the flavour into their mouth”.

The genius solution by Doritos, said Nooyi, was to consider whether there were “snacks for women that can be designed and packaged differently”.

For women, [it would be] low-crunch, the full taste profile, not have so much of the flavour stick on the fingers, and how can you put it in a purse? Because women love to carry a snack in their purse.”

PepsiCo was quick off the mark with some heavy-duty back-pedalling:

We already have Doritos for women — they’re called Doritos, and they’re loved by millions.”

Natch. The New York Times was quick to defend Doritos’ backtrack, saying it had been a “story that was too good to check”. But in fairness, Nooyi’s original words were, “Yes, we are looking at it, and we’re getting ready to launch a bunch of them soon,” which seems fairly unambiguous, coming from the mouth of the CEO.

Anyhow.

It’s always nice to know, just when you think the world might be progressing a little too fast, that the more things change, the more they stay the same.



But one has to wonder, juxtaposing a bag of lady Doritos against a flying space car, what all this is really saying about the nature of progress – and how major brands are positioning themselves in relation to it. I don’t want to seem churlish about that nice offer of no-crunch chips (though personally I have never felt the yearning for a whisper-silent snack). But when I think about the bright spark who put some real energy into coming up with a solution that would help women hide the fact that they actually eat, rather than considering maybe tackling the kind of sexism that makes women embarrassed about basic bodily functions; or the waste of energy in damage control over such a stupid statement, rather than the problems it could have gone into solving, it does make me want to hurl a packet of lady-crisps at somebody’s head.

Hasn’t somebody told these people that ethically conscious branding is a thing now? (If they’re not sure, they might want to refer to the Always #LikeAGirl campaign.)

But maybe the problem is still too deeply rooted and starts too early. Christia Spears Brown, an associate professor at the University of Kentucky and author of Parenting Beyond Pink and Blue: How to Raise Your Kids Free of Gender Stereotypes, said in an interview with the Guardian: “All toys are gender neutral. What is not neutral is the way toys are marketed.”

Brown was commenting in a feature about the trajectory that brain development follows when toys – which are, by nature, simply toys – are marketed in a gendered fashion. Moreover, experiments have been conducted in which children have shown no preference for one toy or another, but when boys are dressed as girls and vice versa, it is the adults who gravitate towards giving boys “male” toys and girls “female” toys. The result? Each sex is given toys which develop specific skills at the expense of others, for example “male” toys tend to favour the development of mathematical and spatial skills, while “female” toys tend to favour the development of empathy. These are not so much gendered traits, the experiment suggests, as environmentally nurtured skills. The cycle of gendered marketing begins from childhood, with lifelong consequences.

Which brings us back to the question of reinforcement. So just as little boys and little girls are developing and being nurtured along separate paths, one wonders, is there a separate concept of progress when women are the targeted recipients? Does gendered branding run so deeply that it affects even our capacity for development as a human race?

I suspect so, but I really hope not. Because when I think about progress, I think about the outer limits of human possibility. I think about a car, named for the beautiful, strange Nikola Tesla, shooting farther into the Solar System than ever planned, long after his death. I think about it aiming – even if it’s not going to get there – for the asteroid belt. I think about this surreal, magical journey being live-streamed by SpaceX for us lesser mortals to see.

I think about David Bowie, blasting out of the speakers on a loop, while Starman gazes inscrutably over the reminder: DON’T PANIC. And I think about the quaint, proud, hopeful message stamped on the circuit board: “Made on Earth by humans.” And I hope an alien that is way smarter than us doesn’t laugh his head off when he finds it. (Kidding.)

Do you know what I don’t think about, though? Fricken lady chips.

But yes: Made on Earth by humans. Progress from and for all of us. And the private sector, like it or not, has become a major driving force. This means we have come to expect more from some of the world’s biggest brands. So please, PepsiCo, aim a little higher than a nice bag of crunch-free lady chips. You wouldn’t hear it in space, anyway. DM

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