Like a many a pop culture-lovin' feminist, I have a thorny relationship with commercials. Often, they're overtly sexist, racist and/or homophobic. Occasionally, though, a campaign comes along that leaves me tilting my head in confusion. My latest puzzler has been Fuze.
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The fruit characters themselves are a little weird, yes—why are anthropomorphized foods drinking themselves?—but I'm more interested in who Fuze is trying to attract, and what tacit proclamations it's making to those customers about who they can or should be. This campaign becomes far more interesting when one looks at Fuze's Facebook page, which has replaced drinkfuze.com as the beverages' official site.
Hi there, less sporty creatures!
Mouseovers of the characters provoke brief bios; for example:
Slim [the banana] might be into yachting, but that doesn't mean our lanky friend is a snob. No matter if you went to boarding school or the school of hard knocks, you can always snag an invite to Slim's croquet party. Just the other day, Slim was spotted playing doubles with the most unlikely of partners, Scruffy [the coconut].
Fuzz [the peach] might be soft on the outside, but sharp as a tack on the inside. This character is always brimming with ideas. Maybe it's that entrepreneurial spirit that makes our friend so eager to team up with a like-minded partner like Moe [the mango].
Notice anything? There are no pronouns. The fruits are refreshingly (ha) not gendered. This appears to be intentional, given that there are plenty of points during the descriptions at which a pronoun would have been just as natural to use as a name, especially when each fruit's name appears on top of hir paragraph already. Wherever Fuze would have been expected to use "her," "him," "she" or "he," they opted for "the character" or "our friend," and damned if this isn't one of the most subversive qualities I've seen in the world of advertising in awhile. After all, it's de rigueur in modern entertainment to assign gender to everything with a face, from volleyballs to robots.
When the default gender for anthropomorphized objects is male, it sends the message that the activities of girls and women are not worth following, or are even invisible, and protagonists in any sort of narrative, from literary to commercial, are far more likely to be male than anything else. Just as frequently, boys and men are coded as the norm by adding "girly" accessories or attributes to female characters. In a media landscape like this, pronoun-less fruit is no small thing.
A tour in gender signification: Wall-e and Eve from Wall-e, Marina from The Pebble and the Penguin, Phil and Lil from Rugrats
So, will I give Fuze a fruit-flavored thumbs-up? Alas, no. There's too much else going on here that troubles me and/or triggers my cynicism.
First things first: I'll never approve of low-cal drinks marketed as a weight-loss strategy, or, probably, of the diet industry in general. ("Slenderize?" Come on. At least it's not Pepsi's skinny can for Fashion Week.) The voiceover's emphasis on nutrients and the suspicious phrase "fruit flavors" denote Fuze's supposed concern with health consciousness, which often acts as a veil for a hatred of fatness. The aforementioned Facebook page drives this conflation of thinness and health home by "liking" such magazines as Fitness and Self, which encourage slimming-focused exercise and promote a poor body image.
Unfortunately, dubious and necessarily shaming weight-loss claims have been central to this brand's marketing for years. In 2008, Fuze introduced "weight-loss lip gloss" in a bizarre ploy for wallets of the insecure. It's hard to forgive and forget that, regardless of much I might like a lack of automatic gendering. In addition to being ridiculous (and bogus,) the lip gloss could have set a dangerous precedent. Thankfully, the terrible diet-makeup trend appears to have never gotten far.
"Always on the lips, Never on the hips"... finally, a non-fattening lip gloss?
Fuze's fat-shaming doesn't stand separately from its living fruits, either. Fuzz the peach and Scruffy the coconut are the only ones not depicted as athletic... and they are round. Before you cry "coincidence," take another look at Fuzz's description, which begins with acknowledgement that ze is "soft." Peaches are soft, all right, but so are bananas and strawberries, yet their go-to adjectives are "lanky" and "colorful," without firmness playing a part.
Ah, but what about Scruffy, who is both round and hard? Let's find out:
To say that Scruffy is laid back is an understatement. Whether our buddy is listening to reggae or making bead necklaces, our round chum rolls around without a care in the world. And when we say, "Scruffy rolls around," that usually means Slim is not far behind.
Uncharacteristic singular croquet games aside, the coconut is sooo laid-back (ie. lazy) in contrast to hir uber-healthy-'cause-they're-sporty friends. Is this a fatphobic identifier, or another "island dweller" stereotype like the reggae and bead necklaces? Not really a win either way, is it?
Then, we have the pseudo-nonconformist aspect, which ties into a large history of companies co-opting countercultural rhetoric. The be-rebellious-by-buying-our-product method is the subtler cousin of the self-aware ad. The Fuze-titled "I'm Not In Your Club Club commercial" (which I guess is coolly "ironic" because it's like when anarchists gather, or something) makes being in a school club look like a gesture of conformity; if this concept had been done a few decades ago, the boothers might have been drawn as squares. The hipper thing is to "mix" by staying out of groups and being an individual. And buying Fuze... which is in Coca-Cola's club. How does a fruity diet drink keep us out of the "BLAND" box, again?
Maybe I'd notice this campaign less if it didn't seem to be speaking directly to me and other young, unmarried adults. It's not lost on me that none of the characters appear to be coupled or with children. Yes, I know: They're pieces of fruit, but their humanizing is such that little banana-lets running around would hardly have been out of place. True, the second spot has a teenaged setting, but in the first commercial, they have their own apartments and are able to do construction, contributing to a general twenties-or-thirties vibe.
In short, there's a lot going on here. Who do you think Fuze is trying to reach with this campaign, and why? Does it make you want some "fruit flavors and nutrients," or do you wish the oh-so-unique strawberry would get back into the building?
Group photo is a screenshot from Fuze's Facebook page. Image of Wall-e and Eve via Bombastic Elements on Blogspot. Image of Marina via The Pebble and the Penguin wikia. Image of Phil and Lil via Rugrats wikia. Image of Fuze lip gloss via MSNBC.