You Say Tomato

10 Sep

Image from MoMA

At first glance, this is just a picture of a can of tomato soup in a shopping bag. Doesn’t seem particularly exciting, right? After staring at it for a second though, those of you who dabble in art appreciation will realize that this is a painting by Andy Warhol. Warhol’s series of painted soup cans has become rather celebrated over the years for both its style and its statement on pop culture. The images have been reproduced on billboards, weird plastic purses and many a dorm room poster. So already we have a piece of art history on our hands. But let’s dig a little deeper, shall we? Take a look at the center of the can, at that dark circle. What exactly IS that circle, anyway?  If you’ve ever bought Campbell’s soup, you’ve surely noticed that many of the company’s cans have this circle, but you’ve likely never bothered to figure out why it is there.

Photo from The Digital Deli Online

Well, my friends, that’s what Culture Cookies is here for: deciphering your soup cans, one dark circle at a time! Here is another version of that circular thing, a little less artsy and a little more clear. Looks a little different now, right? With this closer shot, you can tell the circle is actually some sort of golden medallion. If you look on the right side of the figures you’ll see the phrase “Paris 1900.” We are getting closer… but what does Paris 1900 stand for? Campbell’s is an American company, after all, so why does Paris matter?

Paris 1900 refers to the Universal Exposition of 1900, also known as the 1900 World’s Fair. At the turn of the 20th century, World’s Fairs were some of the greatest gatherings of people, cultures and ideas. Think about a world before television and before rapid transit. This was a time when people were very separated by country and language, and didn’t have easy access to find out what was going on in other parts of the world. The fairs had their roots in pure commerce and started as a way for companies to sell off extra merchandise. As years went on the fairs expanded in size and content and became a venue for companies to display their latest and greatest inventions. Country governments also played a part, putting on expensive exhibits that portrayed their nations in very specific ways in hopes of gaining investors, tourists, etc. World’s Fairs became the place to go to find out what was new and exciting in the world and soon came to involve quite a bit of sensational entertainment, too.  When Campbell’s took its soup to the 1900 World’s Fair, it was essentially vying for a spot on the world stage.

The company ended up winning a gold medal for excellence thanks to its new technology for producing condensed soup. It is a testament to how significant World’s Fairs were at the time that the medal then made its way onto the Campbell’s label. Back then, a gold medal from a World’s Fair was a true hallmark of success. For some perspective, consider that the 1900 Fair also included the unveiling of escalators and a diesel engine running on peanut oil. An award from the Fair was seen as a sign that the product was of the utmost quality and at the forefront of human advancement. Now fast forward to 2011. What does that medal mean today? I would find it hard to believe that Campbell’s still calculates the prestige from its medal into its brand equity.  At this point, the medal is scenery rather than a statement- a matter of visual brand identity rather than celebrity.

Which makes me wonder what would be the equivalent of a World’s Fair’s medal in today’s version of the world. There are trade shows, which I am sure are very important to people in the respective industries but of no real importance to the general public. Though writing on a package that your product won an award at a trade show sounds fancy, the general public has no real sense of the weight of that award. The effectiveness of trade show award claims probably depends on the category – I would imagine claims about the effectiveness of health products are more meaningful that claims about applesauce, but regardless, a good part of the buying public probably just doesn’t particularly care.  On the flip-side are awards like the VMAs, which are highly publicized and reflect trends in pop culture but don’t truly change our understanding of the broader world. I really can’t think of an equivalent event that has political, commercial and cultural significance in today’s world – if you have any ideas, I’d be very curious to hear them.

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