On No-Drain Tuna

A few words on the issue of no-drain tuna. I tend to think about no-drain tuna in the context of people being estranged from real experiences. Along with the car, no-drain tuna is an excellent example of that old Lame Deer maxim, “White people are so afraid of the world they created that they don’t want to see, feel, smell, or hear it.” A car, in comparison to walking, is designed to prevent sensory stimulation; it’s designed to be quiet, to ride smoothly, to have soft, comfortable seats, to restrict air temperature to a comfortable medium, and now to divert passengers’ attention away from the outside world and onto LCD screens often depicting idealized representations of that world. In general, a better car is one that is more isolating. This is necessary because we’ve manufactured spaces for cars to move through that are abjectly hostile to human beings—interstate highways, parking lots, underground garages—when they’re compared to our primordial byway, a trail through the woods. The experience of using no-drain tuna is similar when it’s compared to catching, cooking, and eating a fish.

I’m not sure exactly what the complaints were that the tuna company received about the draining of traditional canned tuna. Maybe some of the juice splashed onto people’s hands, or maybe it smelled bad; maybe it increased the amount of time it takes to make a sandwich (although increased in comparison to what, one might ask), I don’t know. Maybe some people forgot to drain it and they ended up with watery tuna by accident. I really can’t think of any other possible objections to drainable tuna. I also don’t know if the tuna company—I haven’t taken note of which one it is—produced this product in response to consumer demand, or in response to complaints they received about having to drain tuna, or as a result of extensive research involving focus groups opening and eating different kinds of canned tuna, or because they just needed a gimmick to set them apart from their competitors.

Whatever the case may be, I’m reasonably confident that the underlying motive behind this product, and the reason the tuna marketing team surmised that this product would appear attractive to consumers, is the ease of not having to drain tuna before you eat it. It doesn’t matter if no one found draining classically-canned tuna particularly difficult; if given the choice between having to drain tuna and not having to drain tuna, most people would probably pick the latter because it’s easier. For the marketing team this is a two-pronged tool that recruits both the people who resent traditional tuna because they dislike the process of draining it, and the people who don’t particularly care about whether they’re required to drain it or not—all things being equal, both groups would likely pick the no-drain tuna if given the chance, and that probably covers about everybody.

This concept of ease is often taken to be self-evident as a marker of human progress. The easier our lives are, the more advanced a civilization we belong to. Whether or not they’ve given any thought to the matter, I would be surprised if most people wouldn’t consciously choose to do something easier rather than something harder, because their conscious knowledge about what they want is underlain by this idea of ease. It seems self-evident, but it’s more likely that the preference for ease is a cultural thing that’s been adopted unconsciously by our being bombarded by the idea that we should want things to be easier. Other cultures might recognize more readily the value of things being hard. (Only lip service is paid to this counteridea; it usually appears in the form of an inspirational quote from someone like Siddhartha Gautama, unimaginably far-removed from our everyday lives.)

Research has shown that what people think they want is not always what they actually want. Malcolm Gladwell, for example, pointed out in his TED talk on spaghetti sauce that when people are asked what kind of coffee they would like, they almost always indicate a preference for a “dark, rich, hearty roast,” but when given samples of coffee to taste, they generally gravitate toward coffee that’s weak and milky. The idea that we might actually want a life of difficulty, on some less-than-conscious level, is not unprecedented; see, for instance, the criticism of a life of unadulterated ease presented eagerly in the film WALL-E. The disconnect between what people think they want and what they actually want, I think, explains, at least in part, why some people are attracted to certain unpleasant activities, like camping or jumping off a cliff into a cold lake. It’s because on a level deeper than their consciousness, they crave real sensory experiences; they desire to escape, temporarily, from this world governed entirely by ease.

Curiously, within each of these “unpleasant” activities is some measure of variation in the degree to which the activity severs one from his or her easy, everyday life. In camping, some people will take along a giant RV and a couple of motorboats, rendering the overall experience not much different from the experience of being in their backyard (apart from the boats), while others will load up a pack and spend a week huffing up and down mountainsides and sleeping on rocks. And even within this latter group, some people will spend a lot of money on lightweight sleeping pads and Gore-tex boots, while others will carry a box of melons on their head and wear flip-flops made out of old tires. The key is that even when seeking real sensory experience, the countervailing desire to lapse into ease is sometimes overpowering. It’s much more common, I imagine, for people to go car camping than it is for people to do grueling multi-day backpacking trips.

What predisposes a person to one or another of these categories is hard to say, but it could be figured out with some cursory empirical research. Is their something that distinguishes backpackers from RV campers, like socioeconomic class or level of attained education? And what is the significance of camping and backpacking being predominantly the activities of white people? Perhaps other groups of people get their sensory stimulation in other ways, through sex (BDSM?), through food (arugula?), through drink (IPA?), through music (Metal Machine Music?). Perhaps other people succumb to their conscious desire for ease, and then wonder why their lives are so unsatisfying—indeed, these are the people depicted by marketers, people continually haunted by the burden of figuring out how to stack tupperware containers in their cupboard so they don’t avalanche out when the door is opened, or people concerned about the possibility that their child might come into contact with monstrous germs coating their countertops and door handles, or people perplexed by the problem of figuring out by sight whether or not their beer is cold (so they don’t have to touch it, I suppose). Approaching these advertisements as a form of dramaturgy, is there any evidence that the people depicted therein derive any fulfilment from their lives?

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2 responses to “On No-Drain Tuna

  1. Less liquid means less weight and, therefore, reduced environmental impact and lower freight costs.

  2. mackereleconomics

    From The Telegraph:

    “John West marketing director Jeremy Coles told trade magazine The Grocer that canned tuna was hugely popular due to its versatility and health credentials but he said that consumers do not like the ‘smelly and inconvenient’ draining process.

    He said: ‘ We have undertaken extensive research to ensure we are meeting consumers’ needs. What was paramount in our learnings was the consumer desire for easier ways to prepare their tuna without the mess and hassle associated with draining. John West No Drain Tuna meets this demand.'”

    Granted, the ads I saw were for Gold Seal–“packed with only a few drops of water or sunflower oil to eliminate the mess of draining the product before use. The easy open pull tab adds to the convenience and gives consumers a product that is ALREADY DRAINED, READY TO ENJOY!”

    If freight costs and environmental impact had any bearing on the development of processed foods, I’d be very surprised.

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