Wrapped Up in Packaging
Robert Opie collects tomorrow's archaeological finds - cereal boxes, Bovril jars, spray cans ... MUSEUM
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He is interested in things the rest of us take for granted. ``Joe Public does not appreciate the enormous amount of effort that goes into producing. If you go round a supermarket, the amount of energy that has gone into producing two or three or ten or twenty thousand products on those shelves - it's a mammoth organization, it's extraordinary.''Skip to next paragraph
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On the question of whether packaging is deliberately misleading, he tends to defend rather than criticize. ``Packaging ... puts the manufacturer in direct contact with his final consumer or purchaser,'' he notes. Even as recently as the 1920s and '30s people were ``buying things out of sacks, still buying them loose. In 1939, 75 percent of all biscuits [cookies] were still being sold loose.''
Opie emphasizes that the history of packaging is scarcely a century old. What packaging means for the consumer is a measure of guarantee. The manufacturer ``can say `Here's my name, here's my guarantee. ...''' You can be sure his product ``will be the same quality as the first time you bought it - the same purity - and that's why you get these emotional words'' on packages, he says.
When asked about Rowntree Cocoa's description of its product as ``grateful and comforting,'' he says he could easily accept such epithets at the end of a hard day.
Packaging, he argues, put an end to the adulteration of products in millions of shops throughout Britain. He also says packaging is fun, and points out the excruciating dullness of packaging in countries where there is little competition.
Supermarkets, where products compete for the attention of fast-paced shoppers, have caused packages to become sharper and more colorful. ``It's brighter. It has to leap off the shelf,'' he says.
The Museum's display cases trace the development of many of the longer-lasting products. Opie calls this social history because it shows how people live. And it shows how manufacturers continually perform balancing acts - juggling appearance, cost, size, shape, color, and chunkiness. They keep the recognizable shape of a jar or box and its familiar graphics, while subtly bringing it up to date. Or sometimes they produce a design that's deliberately out of date to catch the eye. Nostalgic, old-fashioned packaging is a fairly recent phenomenon, sometimes used for products with a market that is slowing down.
Opie maintains that ``products and their packaging become part of your persona. And people can be terribly upset by changes.'' Packaging contributes directly to the experience of a product, he says. A toffee manufacturer told him that, a number of years ago, a small alteration in the packaging brought a rush of complaints that the toffee had worsened in quality. Yet the toffee hadn't changed at all.
Opie believes everyone relates to his collection because no one is unaffected by packaging. He also comments on packaging that has a ``negative'' effect on consumers, for example, those that are tricky to open.
He points to a Bovril jar with straight sides used during a jar shortage in the 1970s. Labeled ``temporary jar,'' it was entirely different from the bulbous jar the beef-extract product has been sold in for many decades. The straight sides made it easier to spoon out the product, but Bovril buyers undoubtedly liked the familiar jar better. ``People prefer the excruciating problem of trying to get the last bit out - it's part of the whole game, I'm sure,'' he says.