In my local fancy-food store, a little glass vial containing a single vanilla pod, resembling a scrap of petrified shoelace, will set you back €5. Yes, that’s five euro. You almost feel like calling Securicor to bring it home for you.
The price doesn’t seem so outrageous when you reflect on what it takes for each piece of petrified shoelace to reach your store cupboard. In the vanilla plantations of Madagascar and Reunion, each vanilla blossom has to be hand-fertilised on the vine. The pods are harvested, immersed in boiling water and repeatedly wrapped in straw for three to six months to “sweat”. The beans are then dried in the sun and left to ferment for up to two years. That’s how much time and effort it takes to produce the world’s best Madagascar Bourbon vanilla, the kind that when you carefully slice open the little pod, the aroma that invades the air is so complex and intoxicating it makes your head swim.
Then there’s the ubiquitous vanilla flavour we all grew up with. When cheap vanilla flavouring went global in the early twentieth century, the US dairy industry put vast resources into marketing vanilla ice cream. Soon, plain vanilla was the standard ice cream flavour. From there, thanks to its bland, sweet taste, artificial vanilla spread to other foods, particularly baby food. Plain vanilla became a byword for anything that was standard, de facto, safe.
I was reminded of the two facets of vanilla recently when watching two new TV ads. Both ads are for soft drinks, and both feature young, attractive women. One is the Club Orange “Bits” ad, which you can watch here: The other is the Lucozade Sport Lite “Yes” ad, which you can watch here:
On the surface of it, the two ads appear similar: they both use the bodies of young, attractive women to sell the product. Nothing new about that. But as soon as you have watched both ads, you realise that the similarities end there.
The Club Orange ad is the epitome of the “tried and trusted” approach to advertising. I imagine that the brainstorming meeting at the ad agency went something like this: “We know that large breasts sell products, so let’s show lots and lots of large breasts in clothing that is at least two sizes too small! Oranges are a bit like breasts, how lucky is that! Let’s show breasts and oranges side by side! Puns are good – the product contains bits, let’s go on and on about “bits”!”
You get the idea. There is a certain superficial pleasure to be derived from looking at pretty women with large breasts, but the Club Orange ad wears thin fairly quickly. There is something forced about the women’s expressions and the doggedly seductive tones of their voices. The ad doesn’t bear up to repeated watching. It is like artificial plain vanilla – overly sweet, cloying, and gets a bit sickening after a while.
Now turn to the Lucozade ad. Here again we see the bodies of very attractive young women – skaters Candice Heiden and Danielle Hawkins – but this time, the focus is on their power and strength. The grace and skill of the skaters are breathtaking. They are very sexy – clad in hot pants, skimpy tops and those famous gold quad skates. Their sexiness is no big deal; it is natural and unforced. Consequently, the viewer’s enjoyment in watching them in the ad can be likewise no big deal. There is no suggestion of sniggering or nudging; there is no power dynamic in which the viewer must be complicit to enjoy the ad. We, the viewers can participate in what is a joyous celebration of female bodies. And the women in the ad are clearly having a great time – they do not have to pretend.
The Lucozade ad wakes us up and reminds us that what we are often led to expect as the standard, the de facto in ads – female bodies in forced, objectified contexts – is a pitiable shadow of what excellence in advertising can be. The Lucozade ad is pure Madagascar Bourbon – complex, sophisticated, and no doubt a lot more time and effort went into its conception and creation. It is a lasting delight.