Processed Media – Let Them Eat Cake

It’s often easier to use analogies as a way of gaining a better sense of the state of something. Direct description, particularly given the way the English language works, is rightly dependent on building a case based on evidence and facts. However, rather than simply listing facts or activities, expression in English is helped by using poetic references that are related, but which are not explicitly a reference to what we are considering. When coming to a general view, and then communicating this view, in English it is often easier to express oneself using metaphors and analogies because they are supported by our tacit and practical experience.

Native English speakers will often explore a well-chosen metaphor or analogy, that can help people make practical and common sense of a situation. Much to the consternation of my friends whose first language isn’t English, who are often confounded by the way that English language speakers use analogy and metaphor, a good comparison can convey ideas in a vivid and expressive way that goes beyond what simple naming and listing can do. Many non-English speakers take time to understand that an analogy is a figure of speech that draws parallels between two seemingly unrelated concepts to explain or clarify a meaning. It is often used to make a point about the comparison. On the other hand, a metaphor is a figure of speech that directly compares two unlike things for rhetorical effect, stating that one thing is another thing to make a point about the similarity between them. Both analogy and metaphor are used in speech and writing to make comparisons, with each serving a different function.

Shakespeare used analogy and metaphor extensively in his works to create vivid imagery and convey complex ideas. Shakespeare’s use of metaphor and analogy can be seen in his famous line “All the world’s a stage” from the play As You Like It, where he compares the world to a stage and humans to players, using this analogy to convey the idea of the various stages of life. He also used theatre as a metaphor in his plays, creating situations in which play-acting, and pretence serve to advance the plot and reveal the characters. Shakespeare’s skilful use of these literary devices contributed to the richness and depth of his writing, allowing his works to endure and resonate across centuries.

With much less poetic skill and artistry, the analogy I want to look at here is that our media is a cake! There are many forms of cake, and clearly some cakes are better than others. Be warned, this analogy and metaphor will be heavily laboured because, as we may also be aware, the ‘proof is in the pudding!’ The point I want to make is that we’ve become accustomed to seeing a highly contrived and regulated form of industrial production of media as the only way that we can possibly imagine our media existing.

Too often, we have become acclimatised and normalised to buying pre-made cakes. It’s convenient. It’s handily displayed in plentiful and brightly coloured piles on the shelves of our supermarkets. Not only that, but it comes in many different styles, from small bite-size cakes to large party cakes. There is a cake for every occasion. Festive cake for Christmas, birthday cakes, graduation cakes, whatever the purpose, there is a cake that can be bought for it.

The thing about cake is that it was intended to be shared. The origin of cake dates back to ancient times. The word “cake” has its origin from the Viking era, derived from the Old Norse word “kaka.” The ancient Greeks and Romans had various types of cakes, which were often used on ceremonial occasions and as offerings to gods and spirits. Cakes have evolved, from being more bread-like and sweetened with honey to the modern-day elaborate and diverse preparations. They are often associated with celebratory events such as weddings, birthdays, and holidays. Throughout history, cakes have been used in many ceremonies and carry a certain symbolic and celebratory value.

In the 19th century, cake as we know it today became more popular, although it was considered a luxury due to the high cost of sweet ingredients like sugar and chocolate. Advances in technology and access to ingredients, such as refined white flour, baking powder, and buttercream frostings, contributed to the popularity of modern cakes. The Industrial Revolution made baking ingredients more affordable, and the development of cake mix further popularised the consumption of cake in the United States. Throughout history, cakes have been associated with celebratory occasions, and their popularity in modern times is due to their ability to bond people and evoke precious memories.

The industrialisation of baking significantly affected the popularity of cake. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Industrial Revolution led to the development of technology that made cake-making more accessible to the average person. The availability of ingredients, such as refined flour and the reduction in the price of sugar, contributed to the increased popularity of cakes. Additionally, the development of baking powder revolutionised baking, making cakes lighter and more accessible to a wider population. Convenience food also grew in popularity during the 19th century, further contributing to the increased consumption of cakes.

The popularity of pre-produced cakes over homemade cakes can be attributed to several factors. The invention of baking soda and baking powder during the nineteenth century increased the ease of baking cakes, leading to a rise in their popularity. However, despite the advantages of pre-produced cakes, there are reasons why homemade cakes are preferred. Homemade cakes are often considered tastier, healthier, and more cost-effective than store-bought cakes. They allow for greater control over the ingredients and can be customised to individual preferences. Additionally, the convenience and variety of pre-produced cakes, along with effective marketing strategies, have contributed to their widespread popularity. The history of cake mixes also played a role in the popularity of pre-produced cakes, as they were marketed on the principle of convenience, especially to housewives, during the post-war boom. The availability of a wide range of cake mixes and the perception that baking a cake from scratch is complicated have also influenced the preference for pre-produced cakes.

Now, apply this analogy to our media and ask what does the comparison with the consumerised production of cake say about the way that we access and consume media?  Media is a mass-produced, i.e. industrially produced consumer product that is highly convenient, and which is marketed based on a range of appealing variations. Sport, news, drama, information, and so on, are highly regulated and defined forms of processed media. They are cake-like products. Sold for all occasions in a vast array of varieties.

But in the same way that processed foods are foods that have been altered from their natural state through various methods such as washing, cutting, heating, pasteurising, canning, or adding preservatives, nutrients, flavours, salts, sugars, or fats, our media is a highly processed form of communication. Processed foods are often high in sugar, fats, salt, and may contain artificial ingredients, refined carbohydrates, and trans fats, making them a major contributor to obesity and illness. Heavily processed foods often alter the nutritional characteristics of the food product, affecting the human body by, for example, increasing the glycaemic load and containing higher levels of trans fats. While some processed foods can be healthy, heavily processed foods are generally thought to be inferior to unprocessed or minimally processed foods and may have negative health effects when consumed regularly. It is recommended to emphasise unprocessed or minimally processed foods in the daily diet, but the use of processed foods is the choice of the consumer, and there are pros and cons that come with each type.

Food processing can affect the nutritional value of food in several ways. For instance, blanching can result in the loss of vitamins and minerals, while milling and extrusion can cause the physical removal of minerals during processing. Additionally, the bioavailability of key minerals and vitamins, such as iron, zinc, calcium, ascorbic acid, thiamine, and folic acid, can be significantly affected by various processing methods. Water-soluble vitamins are particularly vulnerable to processing and cooking. Depending on the degree of processing, nutrients can be destroyed or removed, but some nutrients like protein are naturally retained, and others such as B vitamins and iron may be added back if lost during processing. Overall, food processing can lead to both positive and negative effects on the nutritional value of food, and the specific impact depends on the processing methods used.

Supermarkets typically promote processed foods through various marketing strategies, including advertising in circulars and flyers. Research has shown that a significant percentage of supermarket ads are for highly processed foods, often outnumbering ads for unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Additionally, most dominant food companies predominantly manufacture and distribute branded processed food products, using various market strategies to increase and consolidate their power. This heavy promotion of processed foods has raised concerns about its potential contribution to unhealthy eating habits and the associated risks of obesity and chronic diseases. While some processed foods can be healthy, the pervasive promotion of highly processed foods in supermarkets has been criticised for potentially encouraging the excessive consumption of energy, sugars, fats, and unhealthy ingredients.

Supermarkets typically differentiate between processed and unprocessed foods in their advertising by promoting a mix of both types of products. The promotion of processed foods is a result of most dominant food companies predominantly manufacturing and distributing branded processed food products. However, there is no standard meaning of “whole foods,” but it’s a term buyers hear a lot. “Whole foods” is commonly talked about as foods that are not processed and do not have any added ingredients. Additionally, the degree of food processing of promoted products is categorised based on the NOVA food processing classification, which includes unprocessed/minimally processed foods, processed culinary ingredients, processed foods, and ultra-processed foods. This classification system helps consumers understand the degree of processing a food has undergone.

Supermarkets prioritise convenience in marketing processed foods by emphasising factors such as price, taste, and variety of products, which influence consumers’ purchasing decisions. They often promote processed foods through various marketing strategies, using product placements and price promotions to increase the visibility and appeal of processed foods. The marketing of processed foods in supermarket circulars has also been observed, with some circulars featuring whole sections advertising health and wellness-enhancing foods, including processed products. Overall, supermarkets employ a range of strategies to promote the convenience of processed foods, influencing consumers’ purchasing decisions and potentially contributing to the consumption of these products.

Supermarkets use packaging to promote convenience in processed foods by incorporating features that make the products easy to use and consume. This includes providing clear instructions for preparation and serving, as well as ensuring that the packaging is suitable for quick and easy storage. Additionally, packaging is designed to highlight the time-saving benefits of processed foods, such as quick meal and snack options, portion control, and food waste reduction. The use of convenient packaging is also a response to the growing demand for on-the-go food options, as consumers seek quick and easy solutions to meet their dietary needs amidst busy schedules. Furthermore, the packaging of processed foods is often designed to stand out on the shelves and attract the attention of busy consumers, with branding and graphics that emphasise the product’s convenience and ease of use. Overall, supermarkets leverage packaging as a key tool to communicate the convenience and time-saving advantages of processed foods to consumers.

Supermarkets promote distinctions between highly processed and standardised food products through their marketing strategies. Research has shown that a significant percentage of supermarket ads are for highly processed foods, often outnumbering ads for unprocessed or minimally processed foods. Dominant food companies invest in marketing practices to drive changes in consumption habits, such as the promotion of snacking over regular mealtimes. Additionally, the marketing of ultra-processed and processed food and drink products encourages the excessive consumption of energy, sugars, fats, saturated fats, and trans fats. Furthermore, supermarket circulars have been observed to feature whole sections advertising health and wellness-enhancing foods, including processed products, potentially influencing consumer perceptions of the healthiness of these products. Overall, supermarkets’ marketing strategies play a significant role in promoting distinctions between highly processed and standardised food products, which can influence consumer purchasing and consumption patterns.

Some common marketing strategies used to promote highly processed foods include:

  • Intense and aggressive marketing: Dominant food companies invest in marketing practices to drive changes in consumption habits, such as the promotion of snacking over regular mealtimes.
  • Building relationships with customers and raising brand awareness: Food marketing involves various forms such as building relationships with customers, raising brand awareness, and promoting products through advertising.
  • Online advertising and social media engagement: Establishing a strong online presence through a user-friendly website, active social media engagement, and online advertising is a common strategy to effectively market processed foods.

These strategies are employed to increase consumer demand for highly processed foods and drive changes in consumption habits, potentially influencing purchasing and consumption patterns.

Commercial radio and the processed food industry both utilise marketing, advertising, and promotion to push standardised and industrially made products. In the case of commercial radio, marketing strategies include building a brand identity, creating relevant content, and using social media to interact with and attract listeners. Radio advertising techniques focus on promoting the features and claims of products or services to inform and educate potential customers. Similarly, the processed food industry uses radio advertising to promote its products, taking advantage of the medium’s benefits such as selective targeting, high-frequency ads, and cost-effectiveness. Both industries also emphasise the importance of understanding the audience, timing, and flexibility in placement for effective advertising. Additionally, radio stations offer various marketing services beyond traditional on-air advertisements, such as lead-generating digital promotions and community involvement, to support businesses in their marketing strategies. Therefore, both commercial radio and the processed food industry employ similar marketing and advertising tactics to promote their products and reach their target audiences.

There is, however, an alternative tradition which is increasingly popular, that is celebrated in programmes like The Great British Bake Off. The term “artisan food” refers to food products made by hand using traditional methods by skilled craftworkers, known as food artisans. These products are often developed and produced over a long period of time and are consumed relatively close to where they are created. Artisan food items are typically associated with fresh, non- or minimally processed, and often locally sourced ingredients. They are made in limited quantities and are crafted without preservatives, colorants, or chemicals, making them a healthier alternative to mass-produced foods. Artisan food is often characterised by its association with traditional, organic, sustainable, and locally based methods of production.

When it comes to cake production, artisanal cake production follows the same principles. Artisanal cakes are made using traditional methods and tools, often being hand-crafted as opposed to being industrially made. They are typically produced in limited quantities and may be associated with fresh, locally sourced ingredients. Artisanal cake production emphasises the use of high-quality ingredients and traditional, non-mechanised methods, distinguishing them from mass-produced cakes. The definition of artisan food and cake production emphasises the use of traditional methods, high-quality ingredients, and limited quantities, reflecting a commitment to craftsmanship, authenticity, and often, sustainability.

The principles of artisanal media, if applied to community media, would emphasise traditional, handcrafted, and locally sourced content created by skilled craftworkers, known as media artisans. Like artisanal food and cake production, artisanal media would be developed and produced over a long period of time and consumed relatively close to where it is created. It would be associated with non- or minimally processed content, reflecting a commitment to craftsmanship, authenticity, and often, sustainability. Artisanal media would prioritise traditional methods and tools, offering a healthier and more personalised alternative to mass-produced media. It would be made in limited quantities and crafted without artificial additives, highlighting the cultural and historical significance of the community it represents. Artisanal media would also be characterised by its association with local traditions, reflecting the unique identity and heritage of the community.

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1 Comment

  1. A really interesting comparison between cake and the media. Lots of interesting information about cake. Perhaps this could be edited a bit so that an article of this length could also include more about artisan media and mass produced media.

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