Perspective: Spread ‘Em

Butter is once again welcome on the American dinner table

If you’re one of the millions who grab a hot slice of toast and drop it on a plate each morning, be aware: What you are about to do next touches on a sweeping social, agricultural and political controversy now entering its third century.

So what’ll it be—margarine or butter?

These days, most people say butter, whose sales grew over 2 percent in the last year, even as margarine’s have been falling steadily since 1992. But butter’s comeback in recent years (a resurgence driven largely by the slow-food and back-to-the-farm movement) doesn’t just signify a shift in eating trends but, as the ads here demonstrate, how advertising has reflected the changing attitudes that drive it.

The churned fat solids of milk, butter dates from 2000 B.C. and is about as natural a food as you can imagine. Margarine, on the other hand, is the product of late 19th-century science, specifically, French chemist Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès’ emulsification of margaric acid that gave Napoleon III a butter substitute to feed his armies with. “Artificial butter” made it to the U.S. in 1873 and grew very popular. It was reasonably palatable, spread more easily than butter and was cheaper. Dairy farmers watched with mounting horror. Can you guess where this one’s going?

Sensing the threat for what it was, the dairy lobby managed to get a slew of anti-margarine laws passed, which by the World War II years affected 80 percent of American consumers. One of those laws aimed at margarine’s aesthetic weakness—its white color—by prohibiting brands from adding yellow food dyes to make the stuff look more butter-like. Gross? Get ready. In 1949, the Delrich brand slipped through a loophole in the law and produced the remarkable (and, in retrospect, rather nauseating) product in the ad on the right.

Sealing its margarine inside of a Pilofilm bag made by the Goodyear Tire Co., Delrich included a little dye capsule that it called the “color berry.” It might be illegal for manufacturers to add artificial color, but there was nothing wrong with mom doing it. Delrich’s E-Z Color Pak Margarine—and its lively, illustrative ads—made it easy. Just pinch the berry and knead the bag. It was better living through science and a perfect fit for a culture as concerned with thrift and convenience as it was ignorant of chemical additives. “Consumers at the time didn’t know enough to be disgusted by this ad,” observed Jon Cohen, vp of brand strategy consulting firm Innovation Protocol. “It looks like something cool and new. It wasn’t until years later that altered food was seen as mutilated.”

Quite a few years, actually. After the anti-margarine laws all but disappeared by 1952, margarine enjoyed enormous popularity in the 1970s because it was low in cholesterol. But the food world changes its demons quickly, and when margarine turned out to be high in this stuff called trans-fat, everything changed again. To what? Well, to the spread that’s been around since 2000 B.C.

“We’re pining for a time when things were simple and our food was wholesome and not manipulated,” Cohen observed, adding that the butter ad, opposite, embodies all the imagery that consumers associate with that wholesomeness—cows, a farmer, rolling green hills.

And not a color berry in sight.

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@UpperEastRob Robert Klara is a senior editor, brands at Adweek, where he specializes in covering the evolution and impact of brands.