How a Cracker Barrel fight explains your political beliefs

August 8, 2022

The other day, some people got mad online about the Cracker Barrel restaurant chain adding Impossible sausage to its menu. Ha ha very funny I hate everything about it, but at the same time, there are actual lessons to take away from the incident.

The primary lesson is an explicitly political one: generally, people do not determine their positions and beliefs by analyzing data objectively. Rather, we often fit our beliefs to our chosen identifying groups. So, in this case, a bunch of people saw that Cracker Barrel had added plant-based meat to the menu, and because their groups are against plant-based meat for reasons that have little coherence with most mainstream belief systems — I wonder how many would zealously proclaim they are anti-regulation and free-market maximalists — they lambasted the chain.

It was further exacerbated by some folks’ tendency to see a corporation’s product choice as not just an endorsement of a certain form of manufactured consumable, but a repudiation of their own choices and beliefs. On one hand, sometimes a corporation is making a definitive statement of values — think of Patagonia directly addressing climate policy — but on the other, Cracker Barrel didn’t tell people they must eat Impossible meat, and they are still offering meat sausage that likely originated in a slaughterhouse with operations that would shock the average ignorant American meat eater. That the choice exists is the problem for a certain group of folks who do not want to contemplate that their choices in restaurant — or anything, really — is, indeed, a choice and not just the natural order of things.

That leads us to the second lesson, which is that most of us could stand to be more conscious of how companies try to brand themselves as entities aligned with your self-conception. Aziz Ansari had it mostly right that we can find food delicious separate from a restaurant chain leadership’s politics, but it remains that restaurants and other brands build their entire ethos around attracting people who identify as the type of folks who buy from that brand.

Target or Wal-Mart. Android or Apple. There are plenty of people who buy from competing brands, but, again, in most cases it is not that Ford presents a compelling argument that its trucks are so far superior to Toyota’s that people choose those vehicles, so much as those car manufacturers have convinced potential car buyers that they are Ford People or Toyota People and therefore they already know which one they should buy.

Once you accept this framing, it is difficult-to-impossible to stop seeing it everywhere. The Nihilist Diet Coke commercial, starring Gillian Jacobs, is one of my favorite examples of how this works* because it is painfully obvious marketers were trying a different tack than Diet Coke’s usual mix of Coca-Cola-ish nostalgia and youthful vigor. There are a lot of reasons the ad doesn’t really work, but the main reason, to my mind, is that it is too explicit with its “all of us young single urbanites are all just kind of muddling through this broken world, and Diet Coke gives us momentary pleasure so stop hassling us about it” pitch. There’s no subtlety. It’s too much telling me what I believe and not enough tapping in to my sense of belonging to a group and guiding me to realize for myself that I am A Diet Coke Person.

Nike is great at this. Often, its advertising is reduced to “these people are spine-crushingly cool and they wear Nike therefore you will be cool if you wear Nike” but it’s more nuanced than that. Nike certainly attempts to capture cool, but it’s a specific form of cool based in fundamental excellence. Nike usually promotes cool that is cool because it is successful. The slogan is “Just Do It,” not “You Tried Your Best.”

The next step, after recognizing how one arrived at their brand preferences, is to apply that framing to one’s relationship with any number of issues or beliefs. Why are you anti-gun? Why do you commute by bicycle? Why are you anti-abortion? Why do you want to stop dense housing developments in your neighborhood? Odds are, like most people, you arrived at your position by taking cues from others in your circles with whom you identify. That’s OK! It’s way faster and more efficient than actually trying to do legitimate analysis and come to an independent conclusion on your own. But now that you know it and are aware of it, here’s hoping you become more critical of and perceptive about attempts to persuade you, or, more insidious, attempts to recruit you that rely on assumptions of shared beliefs derived from shared groups.

*Is it cool or weird that the Jacobs commercial intersects with a Feisty Cherry Diet Coke commercial starring Karan Soni? Check out how they gesture to each other partway through each spot.

(Photo: "Cracker Barrel" by Alex Ford. Used under CC BY 2.0 license.)