Cool Whip, every North American’s favorite artificial whipped cream substance, has now entered its 45th year of existence. On the surface, its creamy, light fluffiness might not appear an appropriate subject for deep critical thinking, so I was surprised this year when it made two heavy dents in my consciousness. Its first appearance was in Albert Borgmann’s
book Power Failure. Borgmann, a philosopher of technology, takes up Cool Whip as an example of our culture’s preference for convenience and artificiality and explains where this might lead us. More from him in a moment.
Then recently, Cool Whip reentered my consciousness when it appeared on AMC’s hit drama Mad Men. Set in the late 1960s, Mad Men explores the inner workings of an advertising agency from New York’s sophisticated Madison Avenue. When the makers of Cool Whip begin their search for an ad agency to promote their new product, they consult the suave businessmen at Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. The resulting ad campaign, “just taste it,” typifies the kind of advertising we see in a Cool Whip culture. What we don’t see as often, however, is how much this culture influences the way we perceive reality.
First, Cool Whip’s long-lasting success simply shows that citizens of affluent cultures purchase products that make their lives more convenient and trouble-free. Thankfully, gone are the days when people are forced to make their own food, shelter, and clothing from scratch. But despite the enormous benefits of industrial specialization, something is lost once homespun activities cease. When consumers lose sight of the time and effort that go into creating a product, they begin to take for granted the people, places, and resources which make consumer goods possible. As Borgmann observes, “Cool Whip exhibits a pattern that is pervasive in an advanced industrial society. Nearly everything that surrounds a citizen of such a society exhibits the opaque and commodious availability of Cool Whip and rests on a sophisticated and unintelligible machinery.”
Second, as companies become increasingly dependent on advertisements for their success, our culture develops a love-hate relationship with its commercials. We may love Super Bowl ads, but how many of us enjoy watching the same commercials over and over again? Borgmann captures our ambivalent attitude towards modern advertising when he writes, “Ironically, the singular visibility and power that advertisement has been given by contemporary culture go along with an equally widespread sense of embarrassment and contempt at the frivolous or incredible claims of so many advertisements.” The characters of Mad Men illustrate this perfectly. They are glamorous, successful, and dedicated to their work, but many confront a quiet despair once they realize their exhausting efforts to advertise for Heinz Beans is ultimately meaningless.
Perhaps the most glaring problem, however, is not our tendency towards convenience or gratification of base instincts. Rather, our Cool Whip culture blurs the lines between consumer goods and things that are beyond monetary value, such as persons. Borgmann explains this side effect:
The availability, the freshness, the uniform perfection, and the absence of demands that we value in Cool Whip we seek in persons as well, and being aware of how widely Cool Whip persons are appreciated, we seek to restyle ourselves in that image. Accordingly, as we remake our personality and appearance to lend them the appeal of availability, we foreshorten our existence into an opaque, if glamorous, surface and replace the depth of tradition and rootedness of life by a concealed and intricate machinery of techniques and therapies.
In the end, our preference for Cool Whip really isn’t the main issue. What is problematic, though, is when we begin to see people and places as dollar signs and billboards. If human beings have any sense of dignity and self-worth apart from their monetary value—if they are, as the Christian tradition has it, made in the image of the Creator God—then we must learn to restrain our desire to commercialize everything. Similarly, if the places we inhabit are more than standing reserves for industrial use—in other words, if the created world possesses intrinsic value because of its beauty and goodness—then we must begin to see it as a place in need of preservation and redemption.