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Label Fable

Claim:   African consumers were horrified by an American baby food company's product packaging.

LEGEND

Examples:

[Harvard Business Review, 1984]

A large multinational corporation once attempted to sell baby food in an African nation by using packaging designed for its home country market. The company's regular label showed a picture of a baby with a caption describing the kind of baby food contained in the jar. African consumers took one look at the product, however, and were horrified. They interpreted the labels to mean that the jars contained ground-up babies!
 

[Ricks, 1993]

In areas where many of the people are illiterate, the label usually depicts a picture of what the package contains. This very logical practice proved to be quite perplexing to one big company. It tried to sell baby food in an African nation by using its regular label, which showed a baby and stated the type of baby food in the jar. Unfortunately, the local population took one look at the labels and interpreted them to mean that the jars contained ground-up babies. Sales, of course, were terrible.5
 

[Collected on the Internet, 1999]

When Gerber started selling baby food in Africa, they used the same packaging as in the US, with the beautiful Caucasian baby on the label. Later they learned that in Africa, companies routinely put pictures on the label of what's inside, since most people can't read.
 

Origins:   One of the perennial favorites in the "bad marketing examples" sweepstakes is the tale of the Gerber baby mythical baby food company that failed to consider cultural differences and thereby ended up repulsing consumers in a foreign market. In this case the horrified victims are Africans, who, used to judging the contents of packaged food products by the pictures on their labels, are aghast to find jars with drawings of babies on them.

Perhaps this tale is so popular because it enables us to feel smugly superior to both the should-have-known-better multinational corporation, and the foreign rubes who don't understand what a jar of baby food is. Note that the examples offered are marvels of non-specificity. No company is mentioned by name in the first two, but by the third a standard law of urban folklore has kicked in and the largest and most well-known purveyor of baby food in America (Gerber) is now identified as the perpetrator. More important, all three examples cite no locale more specific than "Africa," as if the entire continent — from Tunisia to South Africa, from Senegal to Somalia — were home to a homogeneous mass of people, all of whom share a single culture and therefore all think and act alike. No doubt we're supposed to conjure up the old stereotypical images of a mysterious land chock full of dark-skinned, scantily-clad, masked savages with bones through their noses who dance rings around large iron pots of missionary soup in time to the beat of tribal drums. Where else
in the world but Africa would one find so many illiterate people? And ho-ho, isn't it funny to think of those cannibalistic primitives as actually being shocked at the thought of someone else's eating ground-up humans? What irony!

This tale is cultural prejudice at its worst; an apocryphal anecdote based on the premise of a whole society of illiterates who don't know what baby food is are credulous enough to believe that someone would sell ground-up babies as food. None of the stores selling this stuff think to correct their misperceptions, of course, nor are we apparently supposed to consider that in regions where "most people can't read," "most people" also don't generally have enough disposable income to be buying individual jars of prepared baby food in the first place.

The coup de grace in debunking improbable tales is to find other (preferably earlier) examples and variants of the same type of story, but with differing details. In this case, we have hit the mother lode. Consider the following tidbit from a 1958 Reader's Digest:
I am in the Mission Supply Store at Madang, New Guinea, and recently the senior pilot with the Christian and Missionary Alliance told me something that gave me pause — and stirred our store into sudden action. The natives around Lake Archbold are unashamedly cannibals and, he reported, they are now convinced that the missionaries are cannibals, too, on evidence observed in missionary homes. They have seen tins with a picture of a fish on the label and, sure enough, the tin contains fish. Likewise a tin of green peas has a label showing peas, and a picture of tomatoes on a tin invariably means tomatoes.

The tinned-goods firm that supplies us has been advised that it must find some means of convincing the natives that its baby food is made for babies and not of babies.4
Hmm . . . seems this story has not only been around the block before; it's been circling for more than forty years now. This time the setting is New Guinea rather than Africa, the bemused "victims" merely see tins of baby food brought by foreigners rather than encountering them in their local stores (having cleverly figured out the relationship between label and contents all by themselves), and to make sure we don't miss the obvious joke, we're told straight out that the shocked natives are CANNIBALS and the foreigners are MISSIONARIES! That's turning the tables, eh? Irony is so much funnier when you dispense with all that subtlety stuff, isn't it?

But that's not all — the same motif turns up again, this time with the onus of misunderstanding resting square on the shoulders of the "dumb foreigners" or illiterate adults right here in America:
In America, a Chinese family bought a can of what they believed — because of the picture on the label — to be fried chicken. They were surprised and disappointed to open it and learn the can contained only the shortening used for cooking fried chicken.1
 

Some Hmong bought cans of Crisco believing that the label — a picture of golden brown fried chicken — depicted the contents.2
 

Adults who cannot read cannot look up phone numbers. In restaurants, they always order the house special. Their children's homework is a mystery. They buy cans of Crisco, thinking it's fried chicken, because that's what the picture on the label shows.3
Improbable as they may be, tales about the misconceptions of recent immigrants from other lands and cultures make some sense, but they don't hold up when applied to non-foreign illiterates (as in the last example above). Those who can't read may miss out on a great deal, but they don't grow up completely ignorant of the conventions of the societies in which they live. Even the illiterate know from experience that a red traffic light means "stop" (whether they drive or not), that a bottle with a skull and crossbones on its label contains something poisonous, and that fried chicken is not something one purchases in a can. Or are we supposed to believe that they also pick up cartons bearing pictures of cows from the dairy aisle, expecting to find not milk inside, but roast beef?

Last updated:   8 May 2011

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Sources:

    2.   Arax, Mark.   "Hmong's Sacrifice of Puppy Reopens Cultural Wounds."
    Los Angeles Times.   16 December 1995   (p. A1).

    1.   Cherrington, David and Laura Zaugg Middleton.   "An Introduction to Global Business Issues."
    HRMagazine.   June 1995   ISSN 1047-3149   (p. 124).

    3.   Foster, Catherine.   "Overcoming Illiteracy."
    The Christian Science Monitor.   8 September 1988   (p. 14).

    5.   Ricks, David A.   Blunders in International Business.
    Cambridge, U.S.A.: Blackwell, 1993.   ISBN 1-55786-414-4   (pp. 28-29).

    4.   Reader's Digest.   "Life in This Wide World."
      February 1958   (p. 60).