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Zak Witus: Capitalism, ethics and Annie's Mac & Cheese

By Zak Witus, Columnist
Published May 21, 2014

I was standing in the checkout line at Kroger two Monday nights ago, when an icy metaphorical hand suddenly slapped me in the face and forced me to look at the products I was preparing to purchase: Chobani yogurt, Smartfood popcorn, Starbucks coffee, Annie’s Mac & Cheese… The metaphorical hand was impolitely asking me to reflect on my mindless consumerist habits: Why had I chosen these products and not others? At the time, my feeling of self-loathing was obvious, but its source, some latent thread running through the contents of my cart, was unclear. But, now, having sat at my desk staring pensively at my box of Annie’s Mac & Cheese for a weirdly long duration of time, I have an explanation — cultural capitalism.

Cultural capitalism consists in businesses appealing to customers’ ethics for profit, particularly their environmental ethics. I argue that Annie’s Mac & Cheese and other similar products synthesize the formerly antithetical desires to consume and to do something good for society into one single consumerist/anti-consumerist gesture. Thereby, capitalism manufactures pseudo-self-justification, while consumers continue to consume compliantly.

The Annie’s Mac & Cheese box attempts at befriending the consumer represent its cultural capitalistic quality. On the back of the box there’s a “letter” addressed to you, “Dear Friend,” and it’s signed in an fake purple-ink scrawl by “Annie.” On the side of the box, in a cartoon about how they produce their mac & cheese, Annie’s illustrates the supposedly intimate community of trust between itself and the farmers who make the raw material for Annie’s Mac & Cheese (e.g., “We Partner With People & Places We Trust…”). The box even introduces consumers to Bernie, the real Annie’s pet rabbit and the company’s official “Rabbit of Approval. Annie’s pretends to be a small, mom-and-pop style business by giving the consumer some would-be intimate details about their company, the manufacturing process and the company’s pet rabbit.

But the truth is Annie’s is not a small, mom-and-pop style business; it is a corporation. The images on that box are not truly intimate details about the company; they are derivations of the image that the company wants to project. And, most importantly, the consumers are not friends of Annie’s; they are paying customers. Furthermore, Annie’s knows that the customer has few (if any) legitimately close ties with the various companies whose products he or she consumes. Annie’s also knows that the customer has a desire to share common core ethics with the people/companies he or she does business with (e.g., no child labor, recycling, fair treatment of animals, etc.). And, therefore, Annie’s and similar companies profitably exploit the customer’s desires through a construction of false friendship and trust.

When we buy Annie’s Mac & Cheese, we’ are also buying into a cultural ethics. This is evident in the way that the Annie’s box tries to justify its worthiness (trustworthiness) as a friend and business partner. The box proudly declares: “100% Recycled Paperboard,” “Cheese from Cows not Treated with the Growth Hormone, rBST,” “Made with Goodness!” etc. Note how the “Made with Goodness!” comment and the “Rabbit of Approval” logo signify terms of morality and ethics. In light of the box’s other ecologically-focused signifiers, the rabbit appears to be a metonym for nature and the environment. What Annie’s is saying, metonymically, is that nature approves of their product and you should too. “Made with Goodness” isn’t just a statement about good ingredients; it’s also supposed to be a statement about moral goodness. By claiming that buying a box of Annie’s means doing something morally good, good for the environment and good for society, the box induces the consumer to achieve the sublime object of his or her consumerist/anti-consumerist ideology.

I don’t mean to dissuade interest in serving the environment, but companies that participate in cultural capitalism are co-opting consumers’ desire to be eco-friendly and ethical agents for their own profit. Though often we feel like we’re being ethical consumers by participating, I’m inclined to believe that the factual implications of our consumption remain largely mysterious to most — they at least do to me. The danger in cultural capitalist practices like Annie’s is that they superficially satisfy our desire to do something good for society and therefore we don’t feel the urge to do something more profoundly but less conveniently good. Hence we remain content with the status quo of passively serving corporations’ interests instead of the interests of society as a whole. I think we ought not to be so content.

Zak Witus can be reached at zakwitus@umich.edu.