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.
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."
Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. His last article for Ideas was about choosing Congress by lottery.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.