Spread Good Taste

Controlling consumption


in Archive


Grey Poupon’s new marketing campaign seems to be designed to keep out as many potential consumers as it invites in. Though one may browse the brand’s Facebook timeline and Pinterest page, you are not permitted to join the brand-approved Society of Good Taste until your own profile is subjected to an examination and found suitable.

In truth, the Society’s standards are a little random: your profile is scanned for grammar, art and music “likes,” and restaurant check-ins, but like any algorithm it lacks human subtlety — you can re-apply and receive a drastically different score. The contents, once you’re in, are more consistent: Recipes, little notes and observations about good taste, gently worded polls about which hors d’oeuvre to serve at your seasonal party. Generally, these posts or pins have tongue planted firmly in cheek:

Only some pertain to food, which underlines the point that class is defined not only by what you eat but what you consume: clothing, education, entertainment, etc. A quick skim of the Pinterest board rewards you with images of tuxedo shirts and top hats, champagne and equestrian accessories; a “Tasteful Tips” section includes how to fold a handkerchief, techniques for tasting wine, and the perks of monogramming and cufflinks.

There are two common elements among the images, recipes, and notes posted by the Society of Good Taste. One is an emphasis on the trappings of a leisure class; the posts and comments often indulge in a little role-play, inviting members to discuss their luxurious travel and dazzling galas. There’s even a little “tasteful” disdain for labor, such as the Pinterest image of horse-grooming tools (“We have no idea how to use these. . . but we’re sure the stable boys will know”) and Facebook status pondering why Labor Day is called so when, clearly, it should be Leisure Day. (Tasteful evidently does not equal tactful, given that the Americans least likely to be at leisure on Labor Day are the sellers and preparers of food.)

The second element is frequent allusion to French and British culture — or at least, the French and British culture of our collective American imagination, where “British” denotes a monocle and manor, and “French” denotes the epitome of culinary taste. The Society’s recipes include coq au vin, quiche Lorraine, cordon bleu; less European-sounding foods are renamed (Philanthropy Cheesesteak); the British allusions of Society-speak (“Pardon me. . .”) and style should be plain to anyone familiar with Downton Abbey.

That these elements exist side-by-side is no coincidence. Caricatures of French-ness and British-ness have overlapped with our cultural ideas of “class” — in both senses of “wealth” and “taste” — for quite some time. Indeed, these allusions played a starring role in another Grey Poupon marketing campaign from several decades ago: the infamous “Pardon Me” commercial.

The commercial I remember from childhood wasn’t the original commercial that popularized the spread, but it’s the one that cemented Grey Poupon into a household name for my generation. An older, suited man quietly adds mustard to his plate and savors his dinner in the tricked-out backseat of a moving Rolls-Royce. A second Rolls pulls alongside the first: its occupant, another grey suited gentleman, says in a clipped British accent: “Pardon me, but do you have any Grey Poupon?” You can practically hear the italics: he rolls the “r” and pops the “p”s to emphasize the Frenchness of the brand. The first Rolls occupant is apparently not impressed: his French-accented reply is accompanied by a Gallic eyebrow lift: “But of course!” Then the first Rolls pulls away, leaving the British man astonished and mustard less.

The appeal of this ad is sneaky. Foremost, it’s funny: the comedy is both physical (talking between two great big Rolls! Those eyebrows! The wrist-flicking snub!) and situational, as we don’t quite expect these expensively dressed and excessively polite men to mooch and snub. Americans love to make fun of a posh accent. But even as we laugh at the men, we are also invited to identify with them. Who wouldn’t want to wear fine clothes and be chauffeured in an expensive car? Even more than that: both men desire the same object that we are invited to desire: the mustard, which here stands in for other socially desirable traits such as refinement, good taste, and even the ability to have what you want when you want it.

Unfortunately, they can’t both have what they want. In both this classic commercial and in the new promotional campaign, there’s a sense that good taste is a kind of social booty to be won by keeping it from others.

So why revive these old-but-gold strategies now? The Facebook-and-Pinterest strategy is a pitch to a younger audience — potential consumers who are more likely to see paid promotion if it’s on the web than on the air, and whom brands court with interactive promotion. These same young consumers, however, have come of age alongside new definitions of class and good taste. As the national conversation about sustainability and slow food rises, those who can afford to spend liberally on food are likely to spend on artisan and locally-sourced products. We are increasingly interested in labor, whether that means the craft of fine bread and cheese makers or our own backyard vegetables and homebrewing. Frenchness is no longer an undisputed champion of fine dining: the Food Network alone introduces us to master chefs of the world’s cuisines. Though younger consumers may not shop only at Whole Foods and drink hand-rolled tea fairly traded, they are likely to enter the market somewhat informed about food production, experienced or curious about ethnic foods, and suspicious of brands.

In other words: even though the posh trappings and French recipes are still instantly recognizable shorthand for “good taste,” younger consumers may well possess a set of good tastes that are in direct conflict with those that made the earlier Grey Poupon campaign so successful.

No wonder the promotion is framed as a competition.

Related reading:

New York Times: Grey Poupon Ups the Ante on Assuming an Elite Image

Gladwell.com: The Ketchup Conundrum (includes a description of Grey Poupon’s original branding)


By day, Sara Davis is a marketer for a university press. By night, she is a dissertating student of literature — 90% toward a doctorate and buffering. When not working toward the production of scholarly books from one end or the other, she might be found supporting the performing arts scene by taking tickets or buying them, or else standing around at farmer’s markets, squeezing all the peaches. She writes about food in art and literature at Scenes of Eating. She also writes for the online magazine Table Matters.