Food Icons of the Unreal

The more I dig into the semiotic moves made by food companies on their labels and logos, the more I see that it is just as often a lifestyle or value being sold as it is the product itself. And, interestingly, there seem to be many obvious conventions to signifying these values. Industry by industry, artists and advertisers indirectly cooperate to solidify concrete iconographic codes. And these icons, whether we realize it or not, are very impacting.

In Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Scott McCloud uses the word “icon” as “any image used to represent a person, place, thing or idea.” Icons vary between realistic to entirely abstract—some representing the appearance of the thing itself while others bare no resemblance. Now, observe these logos not for their text, but for the icons behind them.

Green Giant Mann's Lehigh ValleyPell's Citrus and Nursery

These icons begin more realistic representations of pastures with the Green Giant brand and become more abstract, ending with the “Fresh from Florida” appeal by Pell’s Citrus, which depicts the same idea in highly simplified use of color and lines.

Despite their different placements on the real/abstract spectrum, these icons are answering to the same code: the appeal to fantasies of agricultural purity. Americans love identifying the food that they eat with some ambiguously old-fashioned and unadulterated farm they have collectively imagined. The rolling, green pastures remind us of a sort of harmony between nature and our eating habits. Furthermore, the sun setting (or rising) behind these fields brings in its own culturally-embedded meaning: timelessness, predictability/stability, etc.

It makes sense that this icon—and the many similar ones across other sections of our food industry—would want to comfort us. Especially at a time when our methods of food production, distribution, and consumption raise serious concerns. As agricultural companies like Monsanto and oligopic competitors like Tyson and Perdue come under public questioning, food industrialists use these icons to lull consumers. The icons then become a sort of opiate to the masses, pushing the belief in a non-existent methods of production.



  1. Phil, I think you have chosen such a rich topic to discuss here, and I would say semiotics is the key to understanding what advertising is all about (and perhaps we can move toward getting consumers to understand these moves as well).

    The images are key to accepting what these companies are promoting and WHO they are targeting (eating well, healthy living, morning sun-rise [early-bird risers]), but again are they hiding behind these bright and happy messages? Perhaps so. Cool analysis.

  2. This is great, it is an awesome way to show how detail food companies and their marketers have to go to persuade us to buy their product. I have noticed it specifically when companies change their logo. Check it:

    If you have watched an episode of The Crazy One with Robin Williams you can get a glimpse of what people come up with for business. In the pilot, they need to keep their largest business, McDonalds and look towards Kelly Clarkson, who wants to sing about sex, and then move towards a family take on the franchise. Most of the time it is more about how they want their consumer to feel rather than the product. Hall theory of viewer and image works great here. Depending on what the image wants us to feel, we might actually feel it, even if it’s a heart attack with a side of clogged arteries.

    That clip can be found here :

  3. I think it’s also interesting here that the products have no relation to each other, ranging from veggies to dairy products. I’m not sure if this relates to Christina’s idea about exactly who is being targeted, but I think the value of farm-fresh is being imposed in many areas, and will reach more people this way.

    The farm image could also be a distraction, so we don’t get the pictures of how the food is really produced. We idealize farms to trick ourselves into a sense of denial about the origin of food.

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