What the famous talking tub tells us this time around

A writer explores the line between what is and what isn't

Twenty-nine years ago, as a nation nibbled away at the lies uncovered in the Watergate hearings, an innocuous and funny-the-first-time TV ad campaign began, featuring a tub of Parkay margarine that murmured an untruth:

"Butter," it said, curling its lid lip and seducing its victims, who tended to be daffy, giggly suburbanites sitting in their kitchens, or the kind of people who loitered around the dairy aisle of their now woefully small and dingy-looking 1970s supermarkets.

"Parkay," they'd insist, speaking back to the tub. (Almost no one remembers that the original ad was so low-tech the actors had to open the tub so it could say its lines.)

Butter? Parkay? "Mmmm, tastes like butter," they said, after trying it. Must be butter, then.

"Par-kayyy!" the tub would gleefully announce.

In hindsight, this was what it was like to live back then, when cynicism ran so deep that spreadables worked as a national metaphor for mistrust.

This was the period in which advertising sought to annoy as a means to marketplace immortality: Mr. Whipple, Madge, the man who couldn't stand the sound of Doritos being crunched.

Add celebrities (actors playing Laurel and Hardy argued with Parkay; so did football's Deacon Jones), but never deviate from the initial plotline of things-aren't-what-they-seem: You're soaking in it (Palmolive); Don't squeeze it (Charmin); and the butter-unbutter discourse (Parkay).

Then things changed. Home life went upmarket, and consumers began to think of themselves as gourmets. Cooking became an art form, a cable network, a cult; pure butter came into vogue again.

A generation later, margarine ads de-emphasized deceit with gentler phrases: "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter!"

The old lie of margarine – it's better for you and tastes almost as good – doesn't quite hold anymore, not when animal fat is looking "healthier" than ever. And what about those reports a few years ago that margarine wasn't supposed to be better, healthwise, than butter after all?

The return of the talking tub

Now the talking tub is back, and he has more to say. He's been revived, after an almost three-year hiatus, by Parkay's current owner, ConAgra Foods.

A heavy-hitter ad agency, Grey Worldwide, was brought in to elevate and reposition the talking tub as an American favorite, and somewhere out there in stores, right now, there are tubs programmed with special motion-activated computer chips. If you find one that talks, you could win $10,000. (Void where prohibited. Dunno about you, but I'm just bored enough to go try.)

The talking tub is the kind of minor grocerial icon that you don't think about until it has been drastically changed or wafted away.

The new tub now talks mainly about himself, and he's not just saying "butter." In a current TV spot, the tub is seen waiting in a canvas director's chair while the set is readied for his commercial.

"He talks about the fact that he's big with families, that he has his catch phrase, 'Butter!' He's describing what he's been through, how he hit the big time," says Dave Bachtel, a brand manager for ConAgra's dairy-foods division. "He goes from being relaxed and casual, until he is picked up and placed on the counter for his big scene. Then he says his big line."

And just as the Parkay tub's America of 1973 faced a crisis of confidence, so, too, is 2002 America coming to grips with deception. The butter still might not be butter; answers are hard to find. The butter-that-isn't-butter could have sold all its stock in the company while telling the lowly employees that everything is fine. (Par-kayyy.)

This is a world saturated with fats and trans fats and fat cats, and you still have to stay cool, look out for the many half-truths and lies being sold to you.

Margarine has a long history

Milk-rich America has never quite trusted the butter substitute, even though we consume three times as much of it as we do butter. According to the National Association of Margarine Manufacturers, oleomargarine was invented about 1870 in France, because Emperor Napoleon III wanted something besides butter. (The French!)

At the turn of the century, the American dairy industry lobbied against faux butter and got laws passed demanding that margarine be labeled as such – no lies! No tricks! Dairy farmers won the Federal Margarine Act, which heavily taxed any margarine posing as yellow, creamy butter. Then World War II caused a butter shortage, and margarine's day arrived. Oklahoma repealed its margarine laws in the late 1940s, and all heck broke loose; spreadables became fully legal.

But deception remains the theme of margarine ads. I used to cover my eyes when evil-looking Mother Nature took a bite from her English muffin, slathered in Chiffon margarine, and then summoned up wrathful lightning when she found out it wasn't butter: "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!" (Who was this woman? Someone please get her another piece of bread.)

But it was Parkay that best worked the existential line between what is and what isn't.

"If you look over the years, the campaign doesn't change a whole lot. It's pounded into our heads over and over again," Parkay's Mr. Bachtel says. "But these things become very nostalgic, very much a part of Americana."

Dave, it's margarine.

But the man is right.

Last year, Americans bought 1.2 billion pounds of it (and 400 million pounds of butter), and Bachtel is "happy to say that [Parkay] is in the top four brands."

He adds that because Parkay has changed owners a time or two since 1973, he isn't clear which advertising geniuses thought up the talking tub campaign.

It turns out to have been, in part, an adman named Dale Landsman at the firm Needham, Harper, and Steers (which later became DDB Worldwide). Mr. Landsman, according to a Chicago Tribune obituary after his death last year, pitched the talking tub concept to Parkay. His wife recalled that he was nervous that the executives wouldn't like it.

The talking tub still talks, but no one will ever explain why we're still charmed by it. And why we are still a people adrift, listening for authoritative voices coming from unlikely places: Does fat make you fat? Does sugar? Do CEOs lie? What's in your suitcase? Have any of your bags been out of your possession? Did we check all the caves in Afghanistan?

On these and other matters, the tub declined to be interviewed.

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