07 November, 2007

Mrs. Bitterworth

The day I realized that you can’t believe everything you see on TV remains one of my most vivid childhood memories. I was four years-old and running around the grocery store. This was before parents had to worry about their kids getting kidnapped. I'd volunteered to get the syrup as long as my dad agreed to let me have Mrs. Butterworth. I remember careening around the corner and down the aisle, my mind full of what I would say to Mrs. Butterworth when I finally had a chance to have a tête-à-tête with her. You see, I was fascinated with the animated maple syrup diva.

See, my world would come to a stand still when a Mrs. Butterworth commercial came on the air. I don’t know what it was about those ads, but I’d stop whatever I’d been doing and stare at the TV and listen to every word Mrs. Butterworth would utter. I would laugh and feel like I’d just visited a favorite relative—the warmth of her grandmotherly goodness like pancakes fresh off the griddle. Freud might say I adopted Mrs. Butterworth as my surrogate grandmother since I was never fortunate enough to have had one of my own.

Anyway, so I get to the display shelf and see the bottles of Mrs.Butterworth syrup, and I start talking to them. No response. I am crushed. I start to cry. Somehow, I find my way back to Mom and Dad and pour out my heartache. Mrs. Butterworth didn’t really talk or move like she does on the commercial. Could it be that TV had…lied to me?

Now this was back in the 60s (yes, I’m in my 40s and hotter than ever, thank you very much) at about the same time that Juan Valdez made it on the scene. By now, I’m a jaded five year-old, but Juan did have a certain allure for me as that’s when I became cognizant of the world outside the United States. Somewhere south of Baltimore, MD was this really earnest guy who spent his whole life picking coffee beans at just the right time so that my mom and dad could have the best coffee in the world everyday. It wasn’t until I was in high school or maybe even college that I learned Juan Valdez was a fake, too. If I had been a coffee drinker I would have switched to Kona.

Now there’s a new Juan Valdez. In April of 2006, the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia produced a reality show to find the new Juan. This was a top secret mission. La federation wanted no hint of what they were doing to leak to the press until they’d found the perfect Juan with the perfect mustache. They found Carlos Castaneda, a real coffee grower. Juan, I mean Carlos (or is it really Juan?) now travels the world, attending coffee related events. Juan’s been to Europe, Russia, Japan and the US and apparently he’s got an adoring fan base of older women who think he has perfectly revived the Colombian cultural hero.

And isn’t that what these fake people are supposed to do? If you buy into them as authentic spokespersons, (spokesbottles in Mrs. Butterworth’s case) then you’ll buy the product. But therein lies the rub. The Mrs. Butterworth ads spoke to me in a way that the real product certainly could not. That ad made a four-year old feel so good that she influenced generic-buying Dad into coughing up the extra dough to bring Mrs. Butterworth home. But the expectation the commercial pumped into my impressionable young brain could never be met by the real product. I left the supermarket with brand X syrup to spite her. Now, I can’t even look at her anymore. Betrayal—at any age—runs deep, and much like Mrs. Butterworth's thick, rich syrup, it runs slow. Such is the loss of innocence. So I take my hat off to the Federation - at least Juan Valdez is a real coffee grower, even if his name is not Juan, and he can only speak Spanish, but hey, at least he speaks. In your face, Mrs. Butterworth.

Gay Pinder, Director of Program Development

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