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Consumer Reports rebuts Malcolm Gladwell on ketchup

Posted by Christopher Shea  September 13, 2010 01:54 PM

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In a 2004 New Yorker piece that generated much buzz, Gladwell proposed that ketchup was different from almost every other food product on the planet. In most food categories, he explained, companies profited from exploiting the human tendency to enjoy variety. The companies could do this in several ways. They might offer an alternative to a reigning brand and defeat it, as Heublein did when it sent Grey Poupon up against the yellow giant that was French's mustard.

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Or they might market variations on a theme. When Campbell (with its Prego brand) decided to go against market-leader Ragú, in the mid-1980s, it wound up doing so with not one but three kinds of sauce: "plain," "spicy," and "extra chunky." Extra chunky turned out to be the big moneymaker, because Ragú offered nothing similar at the time. The genius behind the Prego approach was a food-tester and marketing researcher named Howard Moskowitz. Wait: genius? Indeed, Gladwell acknowledged that his thesis sounded less than earth-shattering:

It may be hard today, fifteen years later--when every brand seems to come in multiple varieties--to appreciate how much of a breakthrough this was. In those years, people in the food industry carried around in their heads the notion of a platonic dish--the version of a dish that looked and tasted absolutely right. At Ragú and Prego, they had been striving for the platonic spaghetti sauce, and the platonic spaghetti sauce was thin and blended because that's the way they thought it was done in Italy. Cooking, on the industrial level, was consumed with the search for human universals. Once you start looking for the sources of human variability, though, the old orthodoxy goes out the window. Howard Moskowitz stood up to the Platonists and said there are no universals.

But there was one exception to this overarching theory of variety, Gladwell argued: ketchup. Heinz, he argued, had stumbled across the "universal" ideal of ketchup, a combination of sensory effects that both consumers and food-science experts agreed was unimproveable. The food experts, whom Gladwell quoted at length, said Heinz had lots of "amplitude." Neither other corporations nor small-scale entrepreneurs could approach such heights. Gladwell cast his finding as an almost philosophical mystery:

It was a conundrum: what was true about a yellow condiment that went on hot dogs was not true about a tomato condiment that went on hamburgers, and what was true about tomato sauce when you added visible solids and put it in a jar was somehow not true about tomato sauce when you added vinegar and sugar and put it in a bottle.

In short, it was a classic Gladwell piece, putting a sophisticated, countintuitive spin on a subject that one might have thought, at first glance, obvious or banal.

In its latest issue, however, Consumer Reports--boring, reliable Honda to the sexy Porsche that is The New Yorker--compares store brands of various products to their more expensive name-brand competitors. As it happens, they examine ketchup. And, as it happens, they declare a tie between Target's Market Pantry brand and the supposedly perfect Heinz. The magazine's tasters liked them equally.

Might this be because Target has mimicked the Heinz formula perfectly? Well, no, says Consumer Reports:

Tomatoes are about the only attribute these two have in common, so the choice comes down to personal preference. Heinz is spicier, with distinct Worcestershire notes. Market Pantry has mostly tomato flavor, which comes through precisely because it's not as spicy. The flavor differences are apparent straight from the bottle or with fries.

With that conclusion, summarized briskly in workmanlike prose by journalists you've never heard of, Gladwell's Grand Unifying Theory of Ketchup--which he was allowed to present in painstaking detail (and 5,000 words) in the nation's most prestigious magazine--simply turns to air.

It never made much sense to begin with. But who was going to take the time to write a rebuttal essay on ketchup?

PS 9/15/10: Well, me, I guess. Also I noticed yesterday that the ketchup essay is included in Gladwell's most recent bestseller, "What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures."

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