Fine in Moderation
Updated: Nov 7, 2020
I wrote this visual analysis essay for a composition class. We were asked to choose a video to analyze, and I chose this Corn Refiners Association commercial. I didn't get to expound on my opinion of high-fructose corn syrup, but I did get to dissect the marketing techniques used. At the end, I've included Saturday Night Live's hilarious parody of this commercial.
High-fructose corn syrup is ubiquitous in conventional processed food products in the United States, although substantial, authoritative information has been released on its detrimental health effects. The Corn Refiners Association launched their “Sweet Surprise” campaign in 2008 in response to this information that would negatively affect their business and aired a series of commercials promoting high-fructose corn syrup. The Corn Refiners Association’s “Party” commercial convinces its audience that high-fructose corn syrup is not dangerous by telling a story of two mothers; one of whom is rude, “uninformed,” and initially against high-fructose corn syrup, the other of whom is polite, “knowledgeable,” and sees nothing wrong with high-fructose corn syrup. This commercial provoked a large reaction in the food world and demonstrates many marketing techniques that influence the way we think about certain products.
The commercial starts by setting up a situation that is relatable for most TV viewers, especially mothers with children. A fun, friendly party is going on; kids are running around and laughing, balloons decorate the tables, bouncy background music is playing; this is clearly a happy birthday party. One woman (the hostess), who is presumably the mother putting on the party, is pouring a bright red drink (with high-fructose corn syrup in it) from a gallon jug, when another mother (the guest mom) comes up to her. Both women are typical-looking suburban moms and are fairly nondescript; their clothing and makeup do not draw attention. This averageness gives the impression that these women could be anybody, so that each mother can represent a much larger group of people: the guest mom portrays all the high-fructose corn syrup skeptics and the hostess represents the people who know the “real” facts. The audience for this commercials are mothers who are concerned about high-fructose corn syrup, but do not know the facts; these mothers can relate to this commercial and be assured that they are still doing what is best for their children.
The guest mom is presented as an impolite, judgmental, and ignorant party pooper. She is at a fun, child’s birthday party when she goes out of her way to comment on the hostess’s beverage choice. The guest mom starts out by making a “yikes” face as she says, “Wow, you don’t care what the kids eat, huh?” This is an incredibly rude comment that few people would make in the real world, no matter how they felt about high-fructose corn syrup, but now high-fructose corn syrup dissenters are painted as insulting. Then when questioned, the guest mom expects the hostess to know what is wrong with high-fructose corn syrup, because while she herself does not know why it is bad, she has heard it to be so. The guest mom says, “You know what they say about it…” But she cannot think of anything to say, and the bouncy music stops, leaving an awkward silence that highlights her ignorance. The guest mom and her position are further discredited when she is embarrassed into changing the subject to compliment the hostess’s blouse at the end of the commercial.
On the other hand, the hostess, who supports high-fructose corn syrup, is portrayed as a courteous mother who is willing to graciously and confidently inform the guest mom. The hostess smiles very nicely throughout the whole commercial, even as the guest mom makes her judging comments. She does not let on to understanding the guest mom’s concerns about high-fructose corn syrup, saying, “Excuse me?” “And?” “Like what?” Her confidence in her information is implied by the fact that she never looks at all upset or perturbed. While the music stops with the guest mom’s pause, the cheerful music starts again as the hostess gives her information and cup of juice to the guest mom, implying that not worrying about high-fructose corn syrup is positive.
The commercial suggests that the guest mom has not received reliable information and then provides a “reliable” source. The guest mom says, “You know what they say,” which raises the question in the viewers mind, “Who are ‘they’?” There is no answer given as to who is spreading this information, but the silence implies that “they” are not a credible authority. The guest mom expects others to have heard the same negative message about high-fructose corn syrup she has, but she does not know of an actually trustworthy source behind it. The guest mom, the stereotype of high-fructose corn syrup doubters, seems to have heard rumors, not facts. The concluding voiceover and text then provide the viewer with a place to go for certain information that also reinforces the Corn Refiners Association’s brand and campaign. “Get the facts: you’re in for a Sweet Surprise” tells the viewers that the vague negativity around high-fructose corn syrup is false and that the “real” information will surprise them in a positive way. By supplying a website, the Corn Refiners Association further credits their stance, whether or not the viewer actually visits it.
The end of the commercial uses imagery and plot to reiterate the idea that high-fructose corn syrup is not unhealthy or to be avoided. The hostess says earlier in the commercial that high-fructose corn syrup is “made from corn, natural, and, like sugar, is fine in moderation.” The text at the end of the commercial is wrapped in a green background, a color that represents nature and health, and is presented with an image of corn, emphasizing high-fructose corn syrup’s natural origin. The short storyline also ends with high-fructose corn syrup’s victory: The guest mom is suddenly holding a cup of juice that she drinks as she chats nicely with the hostess. This plot point reinforces that if the guest mom who had doubted high-fructose corn syrup’s reputation would be willing to drink the “naturally sweetened” beverage, high fructose corn syrup must not be that bad.
This Corn Refiners Association commercial effectively sets up a situation that the audience can relate to, characters that represent two sides of an issue, and a conflict that ends by proclaiming the superiority of high-fructose corn syrup. It uses plot, imagery, and appeal to character to convince its audience of the harmlessness of high-fructose corn syrup and promote the sale of high-fructose corn syrup.
The high-fructose corn syrup parody starts 4 min, 50 sec into the video.