The Greatest Thing since Sliced Bread

Everything was going fine until a slice of anthropomorphic bread told me that he (she?) was not a product. No, this was not part of some dengue-induced fever dream (even though the mosquitoes are back in full force in Delhi). Rather, I encountered this strange creature when I bought my usual loaf of highly-processed brown bread from the corner store.

The company responsible for this bread – both in its actual, edible form, and in its illustrated, anthropomorphic form – is Harvest Gold, which dominates the market share for bread in the National Capital Region. The company has recently rolled out a new ad campaign and branding effort, central to which is the cartoonish Dobbie, a “slice of life.TM” Dobbie is fairly generic-looking for a humanoid piece of food, with white gloves reminiscent of Mickey Mouse, vacant blue eyes and a rosy smile. His name is curious; is it a reference to the house-elf named Dobby in the Harry Potter series? (And is this really a comparison the marketers want to be making, since house-elves as portrayed as cringing, Uncle Tom-like house-slaves?) Or perhaps it’s an obscure reference to the Scottish footballer Stephen Dobbie.

Whatever his etymology, Harvest Gold’s mascot proudly proclaims his metaphysical status: “Bread Hoon, Product Nahin.TM ” Yes, that’s right, the brainchild of an advertising campaign is claiming to not be a product. He goes on to say, in what I imagine to be the creepy tone of a stalker, “You love me, trust me, value me and share fun times with me and this is what makes our relationship special.”

“The recipes featured on the website embrace this “best of both worlds” mentality, as recipes for grilled veggie oat bread sandwiches happily coexist with chole kulcha and pav bhaji.”

Lines like this just cry out for a Marxist reading. I am currently filling a rather large gap in my reading history by slogging through Marx’s Capital, and Dobbie’s tagline is a textbook illustration of Marx’s use-value/exchange-value distinction. Dobbie is claiming to only be a use-value (that is, something that is used to satisfy concrete human needs; as a slice of bread, he is edible). He denies that he has exchange-value (that is, a product or commodity that is exchanged on the market). We hardly need Marx to tell us that Dobbie’s position is untenable, since pre-packaged, factory-produced bread is undeniably a commodity, meaning that it has both use-value and exchange-value.

Chapter 1 of Capital may provide some clues as to why Dobbie is trying so hard to assert his independent status. At the end of this chapter, Marx expounds on his theory of the “the fetishism of the commodity and its secret.” When a society develops a sufficiently complex system of production and exchange, commodities begin to take on mysterious properties. Since so much importance is placed on exchange, the commodities themselves take on a life of their own. They then serve to obscure the actual conditions of their production and the actual source of their value: namely, the labour that created them (such as the long hours put in by the workers in Harvest Gold’s bread factories). Drawing an analogy between “the misty realm of religion” and commodity fetishization, Marx notes that both create apparently “autonomous figures endowed with a life of our own.” What an apt description of Dobbie!

Leaving Marx aside for the moment, we might ask why Harvest Gold is so keen to be our friend. Perhaps a clue can be found on the company’s website. Despite commanding 70% of the NCR’s market share, Harvest Gold is still quite careful about how it positions itself and maintains its image. The website makes it a point to note that it delivers “quality and taste that best suits the Indian palate”; the company has “mastered the science of baking using the chapati centric Indian wheat flowers under our Indian extremes of climate.”

Some Indian friends have told me that, when they were growing up, bread was regarded with suspicion, as an unhealthy Western imposition. Harvest Gold is clearly countering this conception of bread by bolstering its desi credentials. But it would be wrong to say that Harvest Gold is immune to the lure of the West (and its marketing potential). Like any good modern Indian (be it a person or a company), Harvest Gold effortlessly blends Indian and foreign, modern and traditional. Referring back to the website: the company’s “state-of-the-art technology” uses “the best of Western technology and good old Indian engineering excellence and innovation” (yes, we’re talking about bread here). Further, they boast of “an in-house engineering, research and development team and customized imported machinery.” Thus, Harvest Gold assuages fears about its potential un-Indianness even while touting its cosmopolitan credentials.

The recipes featured on the website embrace this “best of both worlds” mentality, as recipes for grilled veggie oat bread sandwiches happily coexist with chole kulcha and pav bhaji. Actually, the inclusion of pav on this list complicates the neat divisions of East and West. The word “pav” comes from the Portuguese word for bread (“pão”), and what is now a signature part of Indian street food was once the sustenance of Portuguese Jesuits in Bombay. This is a good reminder of the ever-evolving nature of culture, as “outside” elements are constantly integrated into the “inside,” despite reactionary attempts to reify and essentialize culture.

And the process continues today. Sliced white bread, which even recently was a sign of Westernized cosmopolitanism, is now common in everyday street foods like anda bread. Those looking to differentiate themselves from the masses are turning to the “healthier” options that have become the norm in Western households – multigrain, oat bread and the like. Harvest Gold even has a special brand to cater to this upscale market: Harvest Selects. As if health and sophistication weren’t enough to promote this brand, Harvest Gold has launched an ad campaign for these products with the tagline, “The Sexy Bread!TM ”, featuring photos of a man’s six-pack abs and a women’s thin, pale, legs. When in doubt, sell sex. A fun cartoon companion for the kids and promises of sexual fulfillment for the adults – clearly bread is no mere product!

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