Sunday, December 05, 2010

ARTICLE: Celebrity Chef Endorsements; Selling Out or Selling In?

I’m watching TV and on comes a Coles ad with superstar celebrity chef Curtis Stone. This time he’s flogging prawns, but it really isn’t important. It could have easily been the ad where he gets a family to cook up some spag bol for $10, or the one where Guy Grossi talks up the Woolworths ham. Or the one where Margaret Fulton talks about cherries in Woolworths. Or the Coles ad with George Calombaris. It’s all just another piece of supermarket advertising ephemera added to the mix.

Stone, cold pimp(in' questionable products)

People have criticised Stone for appearing in the ads, claiming that his $10 meals can’t actually be cooked for $10. Just like they criticised Calombaris—a multi-hatted chef—for appearing in the ads and spruiking the “great” produce to be found in Coles (that he wouldnt be caught dead serving in his restaurant).

I initially sided with many other people and thought that these celebrity chefs were just selling out to the corporate machine for a few bucks. We knew that the produce at the big-name supermarkets was average at best, so where was their integrity? If not for money, then why endorse something that they clearly don't use themselves? For the money... Oh... wait...

But I think I’ve completely missed the point. This isn’t about convincing “foodies” to shop at Coles or Woolworths to take advantage of the plethora of great, reasonably-priced produce. It’s about convincing people that don’t know better to choose Coles over Woolworths, or vice versa.

And it’s a good thing.

It’s a good thing because it will get people into cooking. It doesn’t matter that the “fresh” produce has been kept in cold storage for a year, or that it’s been treated with chemicals to make it last longer. Or even that it's been handled by people that don't give two shits about selling a great leek.

That’s all a battle for another person, for another time. The average person at home doesn’t spend the weekend looking for organic, free-range, environmentally sustainable heirloom carrots. They’ll be happy with a carrot. Just a carrot. If it’s orange and pointy, they’re happy. It doesn't even have to taste like a carrot. Because if it doesn't then they have a great story to tell at the next barbeque they go to with all of their friends. Because, remember how carrots USE to taste?

I fail to see how it can be a bad thing if someone is inspired to cook by Curtis Stone smiling away in a cotton shirt, even if it is based a little on deception (or a lot). Once they start cooking seriously then they can start caring about how their carrot tastes and where it comes from. And they can cynically look at the television and deride the celebrity chef of the moment, selling a product that they don’t completely believe in. But right now, they need a catalyst that will put them in the kitchen and have them frantically stirring a pan filled with a kilo of mince while they scan the recipe card in the hope of finding the answer to the age old question of "how much pepper do I put in?" because the recipe card just says to add pepper.

So who loses here? I can't think of anyone. The supermarkets win because they drum up business (from the other supermarkets). The person mislead into the kitchen has won because they've started cooking. The celebrity chef has maybe lost some integrity in the eyes of the food-conscious viewer. But, really, are you going to avoid the Press Club because George was in a Coles ad? Regardless, they've got the cash from the endorsement to hold them at night.

Some people may make the argument that producers that make good food and shops that sell decent produce have lost out. But, really, were they ever expecting to sell to the average punter at home that doesn't know why there are so many colours of onion? I'd bet anything that the people that are going to Coles to get Stone's recipe card wouldn't be the type to normally buy their produce from a reputable grocer, or at a farmers' market. And if you tried to market to them it would fall on deaf ears.

Recently, I gave a recipe to a kitchen-newbie friend of mine. It's a recipe I only cook when the ingredients are in season because the recipe requires it. I also make sure that I get the best looking and tasting ingredients possible. And I'll give you a hint where I get them from: Not Coles or Woolworths. But my friend went to Coles to get the produce (not in season), made the recipe, loved it. He was stoked that he'd cooked something and to him it tasted great.

If I had have told him to look around for a grocer carrying the best produce, and to only cook it in season then I would again bet anything that he would have felt intimidated or daunted by the very idea of it.

If he keeps cooking and starts wanting to learn more about food then he'll undoubtedly end up buying great produce from great producers. But right now, shouldn't we be happy that the first step has been taken?

In an ideal world, everyone would know why good produce matters and why we should bloody well give a damn. Because it bloody well does matter. But we're nowhere near that now, so can we just accept that a very small step has been taken in getting people more interested in food by (maybe) getting them in the kitchen? And if it took a celebrity chef to do that, then good on them. A white lie never hurt anyone.


Simon Food Favourites said...

nice point although it's no good shopping at Coles or Woolworths if the fruit and vegetables are rotting away. the cherries i spotted today were pretty much rotten and I don't think anyone in the right mind would be buying them let alone eating them. i think it's more than a white lie. if they're saying they're the 'fresh food people' or that their produce is fresh then you'd expect it to be so. so many people seem to just accept that the bigger supermarkets aren't as good and there's nothing that we seem to be able to do about it except either shop somewhere else or accept it's downfalls.

Jobe said...

Hi Simon,

I completely agree with you that it's unacceptable that people see the major supermarkets as the be all and end all in terms of shopping. And it definitely is wrong that they claim to be selling fresh food when it's blatantly obvious that in many cases they don't.

But I don't think that's up to the celebrity chefs to fight that battle themselves. For years there have been celebrity chefs on TV talking about how important it is to get good produce, but that message just hasn't gotten through to the average person at home.

To get things changed--and get the supermarkets thinking about selling decent produce--it needs a cultural shift in society. And the first step in that shift is surely to arm people with some sort of knowledge about food.

The supermarkets are helping the "cause" too if they're selling rotten cherries. Who's going to put up with that and keep buying rotten produce? Supermarkets are businesses and they look at numbers. If people go elsewhere to buy their food then they'll change. It's EXACTLY like you said. Either the shopper accepts the downfalls or goes elsewhere. Isn't that the same as most things?

And like I mentioned in the post, I don't think that these ads are taking shoppers away from good grocers and getting them to shop at Coles/Woolworths. It's just cannibalising shoppers from other major supermarkets.

It's a bit like "don't hate the player, hate the game." The celeb chefs are just playing a game and it's the game, not them making the choice to play, that is flawed.

I'm not saying that I have the full picture here, or that my mind is made up, I just think that there are clear positives to these celebrity chef ads and the negatives are systemic and would be there regardless of an endorsement.