Why Vegetarians Want To Eat Fake Hamburgers

I’m a vegetarian and I had quite a nice experience eating the Impossible Burger. It tastes like I remember a Burger King burger tasting, the last one of which I had over a decade ago.

But why on earth would I want one at all? What an odd, vestigial thing to want as a vegetarian. It is a totally artificial structure, flavour and smell for vegetables to be prepared in. There’s no intrinsic human desire to have food arranged in leaking quarter-pound discs between bread. And yet, I like them! Why?

This is a little theory about how media and advertising combine to create differential hierarchies in all of our minds, and how hard those hierarchies are to shake off.

When we think about things like advertising, we think about it changing our minds.

This is the big sell of all the Madison Avenue firms of the 50s, of the Mad Men generation, right through to the behaviour change and brand and ad agencies that exist today. They each promise that they can bring about differences in the behaviours of consumers and of citizens, and the way they do this is by convincing them to do things differently.

The theory is methodologically individualistic, as many theories of our age are; it is based on us as individuals, on our individual needs and desires. When I see an advert for a vegetarian burger, I am interested in it because it speaks to some intrinsic part of me — or because the ad has created some new part of me — that wants the burger.

Where I think this runs into trouble is in things like reactance theory, the idea that we are reasonably intrinsically resistant to individual persuasion and campaigns extolling us to behave (or not behave) in certain ways. The example I always think of is being told not to jump into a swimming pool by a guard.

What’s the first thing in your head on being told not to jump into a swimming pool?

Jumping into the swimming pool. Bombing, ideally.

I think more realistic and interesting is the idea that advertising and mass persuasion are social forces, and act on us socially or collectively rather than individually.

They are not intended on changing the individual mind. What they do instead is change our expectations of one another, and what we expect others expect of us.

That is, we don’t drive BMWs and Land Rovers because we each have been individually convinced or brainwashed or indoctrinated into thinking they are exceptional ways of getting from A to B.

Instead what’s being shaped is our estimation of other people’s thinking about them, and in sufficient enough quantity that our not thinking in similar ways (or even not thinking about them) would challenge our social position. Advertising, and mass persuasion more broadly, have little concern for our individual thought, except in creating referential hierarchies.

What is being referenced is social power — a topology of how we interact with one another and where power lies in society.

Seeing an advert for a Land Rover or a BMW for however many tens of thousands of pounds they cost is not to create some new mental demand for them, but to create in our minds a connection between the object-in-culture and income level (which is basically the purest reference we have to social power, as per Blair Fix and Nitzan & Bichler), so that when we see somebody driving a Land Rover or a BMW we know that they have some degree of social power by reference.

These hierarchical reference points can, and do, take on lives of their own. Social power is not denominated exclusively in dollars and yen, and neither are its referents.

We cannot move for hierarchies. Beyond things like cars, there are hierarchies of coffee shops in cities, of cities themselves, of the means of getting to those cities, of the countries those cities reside in, of the kinds of music played over the tannoy.

There is nothing we cannot order in sets in our heads, nothing we cannot rank. This is true in other non-capitalist societies, too; feudal society was explicitly ranked and ordered, and much more closely and tightly than our own.

Each of these rankings exists in our heads together with the others. More important is their ordinality— that is, they are able to be ordered in our heads according to different logics.

What media and advertising does, it’s actual material effect, is to reorder the rank in our minds of what we think other people find important and to develop a referential map in our heads of people’s consumption behaviours to their social power.

How does this work in practice, then? We can work through a deliberately simple example to see.

We have two people, with very different ‘tastes’ in media. Person A is a keen viewer of the car-based rompabout TV show Top Gear. Person B is a reader of Caffeine magazine, a periodical for people who really love spending relatively large amounts of money on relatively small amounts of coffee.

Figure 5 shows a little cross-section of how these interests might be ordered and mapped according to the importance they expect other people to attach to their consumption of a particular thing.

Person A, the Top Gear viewer, thinks a lot about cars — that driving a ‘bad’ one would be a real, genuine social shame, that we ought to marvel at the engineering in a supercar, that we should be impressed by the design of a Ferrari. Given the time drivers spend in their cars he would be able to differentiate between them easily.

Person B, the Caffeine reader, expects that other people would find it quite important to drink good coffee, to care about its origins, to think about the conditions of growers or the manufacturing techniques used on it — they would expect that their knowledge of good coffee reflects quite well on them. Drinking an instant coffee might be a real embarrassment.

Neither party thinks that the other’s interest is particularly important — which is useful, because they put their rank in the hierarchy of the other very low. Person A cares little for coffee. Person B cares little for cars. This not only shapes how important they see the thing in itself, but also where they see it in the greater order of things — that is, they might judge even caring about the other person’s interest to be a little silly and a waste of time.

The producers of Top Gear or the editors of Caffeine would say they are responding to already-existing desires to learn more about coffee or watch people scream, open-jawed, at being in a car going fast.

These things are not untrue. They really are ‘responsive to demand’, to a point. To a far greater degree, though, they are causative of a collective and social shift in what we assume others think to be important by linking them to existing social power (through, primarily, income and prices).

All that said, why do I want to eat a fake hamburger?

Because the form of the hamburger has, through advertising, and then through media, and through my experiences of consuming hamburgers with friends, come to become a signifier of social power, such that my not wanting one would constitute an unacceptable deviation from the norm. It is an internalised means of meeting my estimate of the expectations of my peers.