Is it OK to disguise generics as name brands?

You buy the cheap stuff, but you want to impress your house guests. It it dishonest to, say, squeeze the ketchup into a different bottle?

Richard B. Levine / Newscom / File
A display of house brand potato chips are seen in a supermarket in New York on June 23, 2011. Is it unethical to serve a house guest generic brand products disguised as name brand products?

Madeleine writes in with an interesting thought:

When I was younger, my mother used to buy generic versions of things and put the contents into name brand packages. She would refill a ketchup bottle with generic ketchup so that guests would see the name-brand label.

I understand why she did this. Many items are very similar whether you’re buying the generic version or the name brand version. At the same time, though, it’s dishonest. It also tells people that you’re the type of person that cares about having that name-brand ketchup on the table. Not only that, it makes the ingredient lists wrong, which can be an issue with food allergies in some cases.

What do you think? Is this a good way to go or is it dishonest?

Well, the area that actually concerns me the most is the food allergy issue. Regardless of how I felt about the generic versus non-generic issue, I wouldn’t do this with any food that I was going to serve my guests unless the generic and the name brand were an ingredient-for-ingredient match. There is no price that’s worth having a friend glance at a container, think a food is okay, and then get very sick because you bought the cheap version and disguised it.

I have friends with some very severe food allergies, including lactose intolerance and a frighteningly severe nut allergy. We are very careful with the foods we serve, and putting items in bottles with false labels can sometimes be a huge mistake.

So, aside from the food allergy concern, there’s still an interesting question here.

More than anything, the question is about the value of the perception of your guests. Is there really additional social value in serving a name-brand ketchup to your guests versus a generic one? Or is it simply something you’re perceiving and not something that’s real?

Speaking personally, I can’t conceive of being upset with someone who invited me into their home and served me generic ketchup – or practically anything else they served me, for that matter. If they were insulting someone’s religious practices or pointedly serving a food that violates someone’s known food allergy, that’s a different issue. Having generic ingredients is not a spiritual or physical bias for anyone (unless, of course, there are food allergies at work).

It might be a psychological bias for some, but if you’re going to make household decisions based on guessed insignificant biases of your guests, you’re going to open up a giant can of worms.

I have friends who obsessively clean their homes because of their fear of houseguests finding a speck of dust anywhere, for example. There are times when you can’t visit their home because there is a stain on their carpet. Personally, I could not possibly care less, as I would visit them to see the people, not their home (and this goes for the vast majority of houseguests). Again, they’re operating based on a perceived psychological bias of their guests, not a real one.

Simply put, at some point, you have to stop caring what other people think. You can’t let what your idea of what others think of you and your home rule how you behave and what you serve. Naturally, you do want to be a good host and please your guests.

If you have guests that would storm out of your home because you served them generic ketchup instead of a name brand, then you need new friends.

If you’re still uncertain, serve the item in an unmarked container, such as a bowl. Serve your ketchup with a bit of pepper in it, stirred carefully, along with a brush for applying it to the sandwich (or a spoon for dipping, if needed). It looks far more classy than any bottle could look and allows you to save money.

For me, I have no problem serving generic items to any of my houseguests. I’m the type of person who uses generics and is proud of it. That’s who I am, and these people are guests in my home. Yes, sometimes I’ll do things like make a special ketchup preparation as described above, but most of the time, I’ll just put whatever container we have in the refrigerator out on the table and move on with life. My friends and family seem to love coming to visit, so I must be doing something right.

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