Design Matters: Packaging the milk war

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.First it was the beer wars.Then it was the water wars.Now we have the milk wars.Who would have imagined that...

The following column examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

First it was the beer wars.

Then it was the water wars.

Now we have the milk wars.

Who would have imagined that this ‘calm, white, lucid’ liquid, as it was once described by famed French semiologist Roland Barthes, would be transformed from an agent of health to an instrument of war?

Ault Foods’ recent launch of its PurFiltre milk in Ontario has been the subject of an acrimonious court challenge by Beatrice Foods, which has accused Ault of false advertising.

Ault claims that the new milk is the product of a ‘microfiltering’ process that removes 92 times more bacteria than is removed from regular milk.

As Marina Strauss of The Globe and Mail recently reported, Beatrice and other competitors fear that this claim will adversely affect the way consumers view pasteurization.

What is at stake here is the issue of purity.

As Barthes also pointed out in his 1957 essay, ‘Wine and Milk’, milk’s purity is associated with the innocence of childhood.

Since it was discovered over a hundred years ago (by another Frenchman), pasteurization has been considered the unassailable guardian of that innocence.

Now this guardianship has been challenged by what claims to be a more technologically advanced form of purification.

The irony is that the package design for this new, technologically innovative brew is a nostalgic throwback to the days of traditional agriculture.

It is a carefully rendered scene of pastoral bliss, in which contented cows (to borrow an old line from Borden Dairies) graze in green pastures while the farmer and his son walk back towards their Victorian farmhouse after a hard day of pitching hay.

This pleasant illustration, executed in a faux-engraved style, sits below the PurFiltre name, and above that flies a heraldic banner bearing the familiar Lactantia wordmark.

The side panel text which explains the magical new process of microfiltering is played out in very small italic type, as subtle and silent as the footnotes in a hymnal.

White space (or in this case, creamy space) abounds on these panels, a device which cleverly echoes the avowed purity of the immaculate liquid contained within.

It is fascinating to think that an image of nineteenth century agriculture would be proposed as a symbol of purity.

In those days, it was more likely that the average milk drinker would have taken it straight from the can, unpasteurized and unhomogenized to boot, thus risking all sorts of bacterial infections.

If, in fact, the ‘microfiltering’ process does turn out to be a legitimate improvement on pasteurization, then we will have to come to grips with the fact that this most natural of liquids owes its clinical purity to twenty-first century technology.

But are we ready for this?

The persistence of quaint imagery as a symbolic reference to purity betrays the human need for mythology.

For it is the mythology of milk as one of nature’s unimpeachable substances that we want to believe in, not the science of milk as a liquid that requires the intervention of technology to prevent it from spreading disease.

Who could imagine a carton of this PurFiltre as a truthful expression of the microfiltering process?

What would it look like?

Stainless steel with blind-embossed lettering?

How about a shot of a robotic milking machine?

Or a dairy farmer in a spacesuit, plunking out key commands on his laptop, quarantined from breathing the same air as his cows?

Once the publicity surrounding the litigation dies down, it will be interesting to observe the performance of this Victorian set-piece on shelf.

A multiple facing of Beatrice products, with their banal but intrusive brushstroke of color, is visible from 40 or 50 ft. away.

The only way Lactantia could compete with that kind of impact and still retain its claim to natural purity would be to borrow a page from another milk campaign that has been knocking around town for the last year or so.

You know – the one with all those impossibly fit bodies painted like Holsteins.

Milk cartons rendered in a similar fashion would knock their competitors off the shelf.

They might also knock themselves out of the market.

But, to quote Mr. Barthes yet again, milk is also ‘a token of strength.’

The meek may inherit the Earth, but in the battle of the brands, the strong will inherit the market.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.