The Illusion of Choice


Well it’s Monday and about half of Romania is officially off of work for the big four-day weekend (tomorrow is May 1 in case you’re unaware and a major holiday) and the half that is “working” today will be doing it at half speed and ducking out of the office as soon as possible. But in my book it’s still Monday and time to get into some meatier issues.

click for full-size

This graphic isn’t my creation and you can see the original author if you click on it to see it full size (it’s about 2000 pixels wide so it’s rather large) but I found it a couple of days ago and hung onto it because of how interesting it is.

This is the United States being portrayed here as other countries like Canada or Mexico have slightly different brand names but mostly the same set-up. The European package, of which Romania is becoming a part of, is also different (example: Mr. Clean is Mr. Proper here) but even if you’ve never left Romania in your life you will certainly recognize a lot of the same brands, especially those from Nestle (the only multinational pictured which originated in Europe), Pepsico, Coca-Cola, P&G and Mars/Wrigley.

I could honestly write a university dissertation for a doctorate based solely on this graphic but right off the top what’s interesting is that the name of this graphic is “The Illusion of Choice” and the author’s original intent was to show Americans how little choice they actually have when it comes to food. See? You think you’re “choosing” between different brands but 90% of what you eat/drink and use for personal care are all owned by the same 10 companies.

But for me, the illusion is that you have to choose any of these products in the first place. With the exception of occasionally buying coffee owned by Kraft (Jacobs) I live day after day, week after week without consuming any of this shit at all. I have two cats and they neither eat Unilever products (Royal Canin, Whiskas, both very common in Romania) or any kind of Nestle product. I almost never drink anything from a bottle except for a rare bottle of mineral water (from right in Romania of course). As you’ve seen, I make my own juice and I harvest wild foods right out of my back yard and except for the coffee that’s about all I drink. I don’t eat candy, processed “breakfast cereals” or 90% of the other crap that’s on this picture.

And quite frankly, there are millions of Romanians who don’t consume any of this stuff whatsoever and some who probably have just one or two things in their households, probably detergent or shampoo but certainly none of the food items. And I know for sure that there are still a significant number of Romanians who have never bought or used one thing on this entire graphic in their entire lives. Hell, one of the reasons I live here is precisely because I can escape this “illusion” and eat and drink natural foods and drinks in this country with ease.

But I also know that a lot of people in Romania are pining for and covetous and desire nothing more than to have access to all of these “wonderful” products. Hell, before Unicorn City had a KFC (we now have 2!) I knew people who would drive all the way down to Brasov just to get some. Driving for hours just to get some chicken? It seems ludicrous but that’s the way it is, that these shiny, well marketed, “glamorous” things in brightly colored labels are somehow amazing and wonderful and better than grandma’s old dirty carrots and homemade stovetop chicken.

And these multinational corporations are counting on this drooling desire, which can be manufactured at such low cost with a few advertisements. To them, Romania is an “untapped market” and full of millions of “new customers” and there’s nothing they’d love better than to ensnare everyone in this country (and the world) into having the same illusions of choice as Americans have.

But beyond just brand awareness and marketing, this graphic is illustrative of what “modernization” means. Here in Romania they talk about corruption and “pile” (friends with influence) and “barons” but that’s all small-time shit, made seem dirty or onerous because it’s only quasi-legitimate.

What sets the multinationals apart is that almost everything they do is squeaky clean and legal, enshrined by law and heralded by consumers and the media alike as wonderful and great. Of course, the American Embassy in Romania was secretly using its influence to help Coca-Cola and of course KFC sells toxic food and Nestle engages in big-time fraud and high-level people at Kraft take bribes. But remember, because they have better lawyers and better marketing campaigns, when they do it, it’s a “regrettable mistake” and when Romanians do it on a much smaller scale it’s “corruption” and must be stamped out and let’s all hang our heads in shame and consternation.

It’s obvious that the average person doesn’t have much influence over politics or the government but we all have a special and unique power that we exercise every day when we spend money on food, drink and other self care products. Every leu you spend can either go to one of these multinational corporations or it can go to an ordinary person working their own land right here in your own country.

If you want to eat chocolate cereal and drink Pepsi, then “vote” for it with your purchases. But if you’re like me and want to actually have some real choices then buy your stuff from the “little people”. Buy your chicken from the old lady with the head scarf not KFC and make it yourself at home. I promise it’s not that difficult. Make your own juices and other drinks yourself. Harvest foods from your own back yard. Or not.

The choice, for now, is still up to you.

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Categorised in: 1000 Reasons Why I Choose Romania, Food in Romania, Marketing, Advertising and Propaganda

8 Responses »

  1. Amen! This is the best way to actually help consumers (not idiotic public policy pushed by guys like Ralph Nader). I agree with your suggestions 100% (although I wouldn’t deep fry the chicken as per the recipe you shared, but that’s personal taste).

  2. Great words of wisdom. Thank you. I think you should “pray what you preach” in schools and high schools to raise the awareness of young people who will become the next generation of multinationals’ targeted consumers.

  3. That is absolutely true and I miss my grandmather’s fantastic cooking (by the way, she used to make a “ghiveci” that was absolutely divine).
    However now I live in Bucharest and it is rather difficult to find good food here (by good meaning tasty and healty). Theoretically I could go in the nearby villages but it is unrealistic to plan on doing this every day considering the time I go to work and the time I get back home.
    I try my best to eat as healthy as possible but truth is that a ghiveci made with what I buy in a supermarket is not even close to what I used to eat as kid. So I guess I have to work with the devil full knowing who he is… just like many Americans do, I think.

    • well I dont know if you saw my “Boxes of Gold” post but people right now are working with those small-time farmers in the villages precisely TO get their food to people in the big cities. So it’s happening. But I cannot believe nowhere in Bucuresti is there a good piata agroalimentara.

      • I live in Bucharest too, but I almost never buy fruit or vegetables from the supermarket. You just have to go to a “piața” and know what to look for. Not all of the stuff there is much better than the supermarket, but enough of it is. Maybe (?) it depends on what part of the city you live in.

  4. Sam and others,

    I really like the point of this article and I applaud anyone that is truly living by those ideals. However, the truth is a bit more complex and to live in Romania without supporting any of the multinational corporations is extremely difficult.

    Take beer, for example. If you are drinking beer in Romania, there is about a 99% chance that you are supporting SABMiller, InBev, or Heineken, all of which are seriously large corporations (BTW, none of these are owned by those devilish Americans). The only other option is to specifically choose imported beers from smaller breweries – something I’m not prepared to do because of the incredibly inflated prices. And I like beer, so this is a compromise that I’m fully aware I’m making.

    For meats, Tyson and Smithfield (two decidedly evil American companies) are both in Romania and you if you buy pork or chicken from a supermarket, you stand a good shot at supporting these companies as well, but at least there are Romanian options – just be sure to read the labels carefully and investigate companies that you buy regularly. Beer and meats are just two examples, without even mentioning health and beauty supplies and cheap plastic goods.

    Of course, the best idea is to get fresh meats, fruits, and veggies directly from the source, but even that isn’t so clear. Don’t be fooled into thinking that every old baba in the market is bringing you fresh products from her own farm. Maybe some are, but many are simply buyers that are reselling (another reason to support Cutia Taranului, if at all possible), or even worse, they’re just the employees of the reseller. If you don’t believe me, go to any Romanian village and ask who is buying the local produce and taking it to market. There’s usually one collector that is paying even cheaper prices than you see at the market.

    So what’s the answer? Unfortunately, I don’t think it’s outright avoidance of all international corporations or only harvesting wild foods from your backyard (dandelion salads are great and all, but how many people in Romanian cities actually have a backyard?), but more being aware and choosing your battles. If you want fresh-squeezed orange juice, that’s cool, but realize it’s not some small farmer you’re supporting. If you want a beer, enjoy it, but know where your money is going. At the same time, go the extra effort and buy Romanian produce from the market (keep in mind that piata avocados come from exactly the same place as supermarket avocados) instead of imported produce from the grocery store. Build up good investigative and buying habits and you will be doing your part. Just don’t live in the fantasy that you are doing nothing to support these “evil” companies.

    Believe it or not, it’s the same struggle in the US, but it may actually be easier there with many more independent companies (which should be another post about why small businesses don’t work in Romania, but that’s a whole other can of worms).

    Ugh, sorry for being so long-winded. I do appreciate the point of this article and hope others can take away some sound advice. Many thanks for writing, Sam, and keep pushing people in the right direction.

  5. Great entry, and I like that image (even if not yours). Really hard to eat well, at times, in the US. Additional thought, which may not apply in Romania, but which is very frustrating in the US: the COST of *good* food versus bad crap, due to gov’t subsidies. So McDonald’s can sell a hamburger on their “value menu” for 99 cents that nobody sane wants to eat, but good high-end meat without “pink slime” and other additives costs much more. Never mind the trained “convenience” of fast food. Commodity food is much the same; commodity cheese was basically flavored oil. Cheap but BAD. Then people wonder why obesity, diabetes, high blood-pressure and heart-disease are such problems in poverty-stricken communities who use food stamps. Well YEAH. Because they can neither afford decent food, nor are taught to like it. Some inroads are being made with “community vegetable gardens,” et al., in poor neighborhoods, but it’s very thin on the ground. Need to get GOOD, affordable food into poorer communities, and not have “organic” = rich people’s food. Gov’t subsidizes the wrong people … except, OOPS, yeah, they’re the ones making campaign contributions. ;p

    I wish the US would institute more fresh markets open every day, not just early on Saturdays (or Sundays) in a select few places … e.g., the American urban “farmer’s market.” They’re fine, but … still scratching the surface. I loved that about Greece. Walk a block or three and get fresh lunch — bread, olives, cheese and whatever veggie they have — and never have to see the generic inside of a fast-food restaurant!

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