Is there a more bizarre advertising campaign running right now than the “Beef – It’s what’s for dinner” landscape series? Has anyone noticed these ads? I’ve encountered them in Rolling Stone, The New Yorker and Food & Wine – full page, full color (if mealy reddish-grey qualifies as color) and full of confidence. That they make absolutely no sense is my distant North Star. It’s gonna take some serious tea to un-knot my brain from the taser-gun stun of how completely confounding and hilariously bad all the elements of these ads are.
The gist is that they’ve substituted hunks of cooked beef for land mass. There’s the “prairie” of beef; the “beach” of beef; the “cliff”, the “mountains”, the “river canyon”. The “land of beef”… Which begs the question: how is that appetizing? Who has ever looked at a rocky cliff – I mean really looked at it, looked at the details of it – and thought about dinner? Re-imagining that rocky cliff as a pallid, glistening precipice of over-sized beef, and yet keeping it in the context of a cliff in a landscape, welcomes these observations: land mass isn’t edible, that’s too much meat, the meat looks like it’s under a magnifying glass, an actual “land of beef” would be disgusting in that it would be a surfeit of beef – and only beef – and while I guess you’d theoretically never be hungry, you’d never want to be – you know? And then it gets weird…
In the landscapes of the ads, a person (the consumer) would be tiny compared to these hulking, immovable lumps of meat. How would you feel traversing the meat like that? Would you think about how it was cooked flesh? Does it age, does it rot, does it smell? Do cows graze somewhere in this “land of beef”? Does grass grow on it – or do they do the unthinkable and graze (it’s unavoidable…) upon themselves? Isn’t that the responsibility of anyone, from ad-men to artists, who toys with reality by taking things out of context: to think through the consequences? The consequences of a literal “land of beef”, where rock and soil are replaced by meat, are stupefying – and, you’d think, disasterous to the very industry that these ads promote. (Unless you consider all the real estate…)
From a purely culinary perspective, there are some surefire ways of making meat appear, much less taste, appetizing. The char of the grill, the recognizable cuts, moist slices, accompaniments of vegetables, sauces, herbs. Every cookbook, every food magazine, every cooking show is rampant with the decorative flourishes that make mouths water. And yet here’s the fucking “land of beef” ads doing everything wrong: unidentifiable cuts; sinuous, strange slices; drab shadows and suffuse backlighting that makes the meat look poor quality and cold; and no accompaniments, no other flavors, no other colors or textures unless you follow the “land of beef” logic even further and reconsider the rest of the physical space.
Which un-knots my mind to what was really my first critical thought when I saw one of these ads: if the canyon is beef, then what the fuck is that river? It would have to be edible, right? In the “Beef Canyon” ad, the riverbank has the opaque amber hue of flash-fried gristle, while the “water” appears to be the stream of grease suburban moms strain off the ground chuck into a soup can. What else could it be? If it’s supposed to evoke mashed potatoes and gravy then the ad agency’s photoshop wizard needs to get checked for glaucoma.
Maybe it’s sabotage? Some hard-core vegan sect has finally infiltrated the heart of the industry – the advertising – to turn Americans off of beef for once and for all. It’s easier to imagine those secret vegan meetings than it is to think of the ad-men around a conference table in some high-rise in New York. In the secret vegan meetings they say “We’ll magnify the shit out of the meat and make it look revolting and make people who see the ad question why in the fuck they’d ever put something like that in to their bodies and the whole campaign will become a running joke of bad ideas and nausea.” What are they saying in the high-rise? Who would even consider a campaign like this and not be worried?
And yet here we are. Big industry. Big money. Big ideas. I’m one of those occasional meat eaters who rationalizes the gorier elements of the process by thinking of man’s survival, of all the sharpened spears buried in our past. But these “land of beef” ads hit like a caveman’s club. Here – Bonk! – in dazed and wacky detail, is the real truth of modern beef: it’s bland, dense and concern-colored; it’s mass produced and pumped with hormones; it’s greasy, gristly, disjointed, irregular; and it’s everywhere.
I’m no ad-man, but if I had to think up a proper slogan for this campaign, it’d have to be: “Beware!”