I listen to a lot of "old time" radio - especially mysteries and detective shows - in part to satisfy my insatiable appetite for narrative while up to my sudsy elbows in the dishwater of history. The other day, I heard an episode of "Mysteries in the Air," starring Peter Lorre, with his quavering syllables and his lightning-speed mildness-to-mania transitions.
The show was sponsored by Camel cigarettes, and the version I listened to kept the sponsor's message intact in the broadcast. Smokers are notoriously brand-loyal. They're not like consumers of other stuff, switching from Charmin to Quilted Northern on a whim or a spree. They'll ask for their pack of Luckies or Reds or Virginia Slims every time, without fail, no hesitation. You smoke what you've always smoked. But how do you get people to switch? How do you get people to believe that their choice is their own to make, and not somehow compulsory? Here's a complete transcript:
[Cymbal-clash] "Voice of God"-type voice, distorted as though through a PA speaker, intones: Experience is the best teacher.
"Average Joe": Remember the wartime cigarette shortage? Who doesn't! One thing about it though - smokers who went through it really learned a lot about cigarettes. They had first-hand experience with many different brands.
Dame: [Giggles] How true! Goodness, we certainly smoked whatever brands we could get in those days. I smoked so many brands I'm practically a walking encyclopedia about cigarettes. Well, I'm a Camel smoker now, and believe me, I know Camel is the cigarette for me because I've compared so many brands.
Joe: Yes, smoking whatever brands they could get during the wartime cigarette shortage made people everywhere experts on judging the differences in cigarette quality. That experience convinced a host of smokers that they preferred the rich, full flavor and cool mildness of Camels. The result:
PA-speaker Voice of God: More people are smoking Camels than ever before.
Joe: Experience really is the best teacher. Try a Camel yourself.
The ad is interesting to me because it tries to make a conditioned, manipulated, somewhat arbitrary choice -- the choice of what brand of cigarette to smoke -- seem like a reasonable one, made with deliberation and informed judgment. These people, we are told, are experts about smoking, walking encyclopedias. Hey, thanks to the war, you're an expert! The wartime cigarette shortage created a circumstance that never exists in civilian life - you had to smoke what you could get. This wasn't privation; it was a de facto tasting panel. You developed the capacity to judge the differences in cigarette quality. Informed consumer, you can now choose your brand based on the exercise of your newly cultivated expertise. You base your choice on taste, not habit or nostalgia, nor are you a puppet of advertisers. But it's not just individual judgment that's definitive here - there's a consensus. After all, "More people are smoking Camels than ever before." Does your judgment concur with the multitude, or is there something different or perhaps defective about your powers of discernment?
In my own research into flavor and taste, I've become increasingly skeptical about the claims of sensory expertise even as I recognize the capacity to refine sensory discernment. Objective Methods in Food Quality Assessment, a textbook published in 1987, describes the lengths that sensory scientists go to create "objective" data about food preferences and sensibilities. The first chapter, with the perhaps over-insistent title, "Sensory Evaluation Can Be Objective," advises: "since humans are being used as measuring instruments, every effort must be made to control the effect of the environment on judgment." The testing room should be slightly higher pressure than the exterior, in order to eliminate the introduction of non-relevant odors. The temperature and humidity should be rigidly controlled. Colored lights might be useful, to make color differences in foods invisible. In the author's laboratory, they place tasters in an individual "domed hatch," where they can press a button to indicate when they are ready for a new sample. This way, they eliminate any possible influence introduced by the technician who delivers the sample. The taster is in a pod, isolated from all direct human contact, with a color-indeterminate cube of stuff to decide about.
Sensory science tries gamely to create "objective" data, staging tasting tests where all potentially corrupting stimuli are stripped away, and the individual is "independent" of outside influence and exercises only her or his own sensory judgment. That is, a situation that is never like actual consumption, where we look everywhere for cues about whether something is delicious, disgusting, valuable, cheap, good to like, bad to like. It's an impossible task - a dream of a science that believes it can exist outside of the social, with laboratory as a space that maintains a cultural cordon sanitaire, sanitized from social factors.
Which is not to say that one cannot prefer a brand of cigarettes or whiskey, or be a walking encyclopedia about tobaccos or wines or ice cream. Just that in a certain way, perhaps, our choices about taste are not only our own.