Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A Close Reading of a Sugar Packet

Waiting for dinner at a restaurant recently, I fixated upon the design of this Sweet’N Low packet.

Does it confuse anyone else that the first word to appear on the package is “Pocahontas”? I assume that Pocahontas is a company that participates in some important stage of Sweet’N Low production. Quite likely it’s Pocahontas Foods USA, Inc., which apparently has its hand in the creation of all manner food- and food-like items. Curiously, however, “sweetener” isn’t listed as one of them. Perhaps Sweet’N Low is considered a pretzel or a pudding spice. There’s a Google hit for Pocahontas Foods, but the URL just redirects to the sinister-sounding Progressive Group Alliance. (With a name that vague, you know it has to be stealing our life energies and selling them back to us in the form of processed goods.) The name of the Progressive Group Alliance appears on the package too, with the explanation that it distributes Sweet’N Low. I couldn’t tell you why Pocahontas doesn’t get a few words explaining its role. “Created by Pocahontas Foods?” “Brewed together, mad scientist-style by Pocahontas Foods?” “Harvested from the underbellies of rats by Pocahontas Foods?” We’ll never know.

As it stands now, floating awkwardly at the top of packaging that lacks any other reference to Native Americans, the word “Pocahontas” is an inexplicable shout-out to a character from American history — or, depending on the age and education of the person looking at it, a Disney princess.

As for the design of the Sweet’N Low logo itself, I have to admit that it does a few things right. For example, the name is simple but both effective and accurate — it is a zero-calorie product, the packaging reminds us. And the notion of displaying the logo against music bars would be a good one, since music could also be described as being both sweet and low, and, as Wikipedia alleges, the product does take its name from the 1863 Sir Joseph Barnby song “Sweet and Low.” (I’d wager Sir Joe is not sure how to feel about his legacy being synthetic sugar.) It’s a small criticism, but I question the decision to put a treble clef on the left, however. Anyone who’s taken piano lessons associates the treble clef with the notes on the right side of Middle C and, therefore, higher notes, as opposed to the bass clef, which is associated with the lower notes. This is probably overthinking things, even for an exercise as pointless as this one.

It’s probably worth noting that the name of the product isn’t even supposed to be a representation of the phrase “sweet and low, even though I’d imagine that’s how most people would interpret it. I’d actually always thought the “N” was missing a second apostrophe on its other side, but the Sweet’N Low brand name is actually one of the few bits of commercial text that actually uses the apostrophe correctly. It’s even pointing in the right direction — where the “e” in “sweeten” would be were it not discarded into a pile containing other catchiness-deterring letters such as the “t-a-i” in “Cap’n Crunch.” Yes, the artificial sweetener’s name is a riff on “sweeten low,” which doesn’t really make sense. (I generally object to product names that are imperatives demanding anything besides “Buy this.”) If you try and make “Sweet’N Low” a sentence — and you should, if only because I do — by bonegrafting possibly excised words onto its fragile frame, you get either “Sweet’n [with] low[-calorie sugar substitute]” or “Sweet’n[er that happens to be] low [in calories].” Both are about as satisfying as fake sugar, which is perhaps the point.

In an effort to solve the question of Pocahontas Foods, I went to the official Sweet’N Low website, which opens with a video of living cardboard cut-out Regis Philbin and goes downhill from there. No questions answered, only raised, particularly with this:

Apparently seductive, old Regis wants us to join him for a sexy cup of coffee — but that’s only if the Pink Panther (cartoon version) doesn’t make Regis fall to his death first! Which is apparently what the Pink Panther does. Which I didn’t know until today.

How my rumination on all this ended: “Drew, please put down the sugar packet and join the conversation.”

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