Banquet in a Box

Frozen meals are miracles of convenience—with a dollop of denial

If we could please get the sniggers out of the way first, there’s an important thing that needs to be said about TV dinners. They’re unique in the world of branding for exemplifying not one but two separate miracles. In case you’re having a tough time believing that, check out the 1962 and 2011 ads here. The first miracle? Why, technology, of course. The second: a means to achieve an unprecedented level of denial of the first. Hey, good marketing can do that for you.

A little history might help to start. Frozen foods dropped into compartmented trays for later reheating has been around since the 1940s under brand names like Strato-Plates and Jack Fisher’s FrigiDinners. But it was C.A. Swanson & Sons that would read the market perfectly. In the postwar years, not only were harried moms looking for guiltless disentanglement from the home-cooked meal, but also TVs had replaced the dinner table as the family social locus. (When the ad at right ran in 1962, there were nearly 49 million households in the U.S.—and 90 percent of them had TV sets.) Through a clever melding of food coloring, a metal tray that doubled as cooking caddy and plate, and the literal patenting of the term “TV Dinner,” Swanson let you follow John Glenn into orbit. Sure, the box called the food “delicious,” but according to branding firm CBX’s chief creative officer and partner Rick Barrack, it was the future you were eating. “The taste profile was secondary to the convenience of taking it out of the box and serving it on a tray,” he says. “TV was full of riches. TV was it. And with TV dinners, you didn’t miss a second.”

One Cold War and 49 years later, Stouffer’s is selling frozen dinners just like Swanson did. But witness TV dinner miracle No. 2. While the need to eat, the demand for convenience, and the consumers themselves are virtually unchanged, the marketing is suddenly about hiding everything that 1962’s suburbanites celebrated. A farm has replaced the gingham TV table; the box has virtually disappeared; and the food itself has been artfully heaped on an earthenware plate—handily decamped from the plastic tray it came in. Most remarkable of all, “there’s no reminder that you have to nuke this sucker to make it edible,” Barrack says.

The takeaway here is not shame so much as inevitability. We need frozen dinners today every bit as much as we did when JFK was in the White House. But 1962’s better living through aluminum has simply ceded to an ersatz farm tour. What choice had we, really? The first miracle forced the second one on us. “The farmland and fresh-picked vegetables are a cliché,” Barrack says. “But it’s required to deal with the historical baggage we’ve inherited from knowing the truth about frozen entrees.”


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