The designer label extends to spinach

THE brand name is coming to the hitherto anonymous world of fresh produce. And why not? If entrepreneurs can slap a label on drinking water, as the Wall Street Journal has noted, why can't they stick a proprietary title on cauliflower -- if they can find a place to stick it? We aren't talking here about Jordache tomatoes. But something like the war of the chic designers is about to be played out among the green grocery bins. Kraft wants to put its personal crunch on carrots and celery. Campbell has begun autographing avocados on the West Coast, while test-marketing in Connecticut lettuce, cucumbers, and yes, even spinach under the name of Pepperidge Farm.

If you can give snob value to spinach, fellow consumers, what is left?

In more innocent days -- before television hired relentless men and women to hold up the sponsor's name to the camera while a shrill voice-over drilled it into the viewer's head -- the recitation of brand names possessed a certain charm. Novelists and short-story writers took delight in dropping brand names into their plots as a kind of circumstantial evidence to support the credibility of the rest of their work of art. The late John O'Hara was the master of this verisimilitude-by-association, and his imitators carried it to the point of parody:

``Muriel opened wide her Maybelline eyes, pouted her Revlon lips, and looked sidewise across her IBM keyboard until Charles felt his Pierre Cardin blazer tighten across his shoulders and realized he was blushing beneath his Brut aftershave.'' And so on.

In those days a reader assumed a total characterization just from the title of Mary McCarthy's short story, ``The Man in the Brooks Brothers Suit.''

One had one's glamour and one's irony too. What fun!

But now the brand name has become a form of tyranny disguised as a bad joke.

Does anybody really want to take still another fix on the character of the Yuppie as the sum of his or her shopping list, beginning with a Saab 900 Turbo?

The brand name has turned into a brand for certain, labeling the goods less than it labels the consumer. Our taste comes up for audit from every passer-by according to the patch on the pocket of our jeans.

And next, apparently, we are to be judged by complete strangers on the basis of the broccoli we carry in our shopping bag!

Push the rule of the brand name far enough and it becomes an invasion of privacy.

Is nothing left to remain generic -- without those prejudicial clues that instantly classify the consumer as ``in'' or ``out'' before the appraising eyes of connoisseurs? Meaning everybody with a TV set.

Is there no place to go where you can escape shame for the wrong label on your raincoat or your spinach? Outer space, maybe? Forget it. The ``friendly skies'' have already been staked out by one airline, and the astronauts are beginning to parcel out the stratosphere like a giant billboard.

The scenario before us threatens to play like this:

``Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain. Thank you for flying Supersonic Space Shuttle. In just another 10,000 miles or so the flight attendants will be serving you Squeeze-Me orange juice and Crunch-'Em pistachio nuts, the official snack of the astronauts. If everything conforms to schedule, we will be landing on the moon in just 22 hours and 13 minutes, according to Interplanetary watch, the only timepiece guaranteed beyond 50 miles up. . . .''

It is not a future to be unconditionally endorsed, even in a commercial by Orson Welles.

A Wednesday and Friday column

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