Excerpt From Hank Cardello's 'Stuffed'

The Swanson TV dinner appeared at a moment when our culture was changing how it thought about food. Televisions were making their way into people's homes, and food companies had begun to use this new medium to advertise their products, feeding consumers hungry for new ideas with spoonfuls of new ways to spend money on food. The idea that convenience trumped taste played right into the mind-set of that moment and it was all too infectious— from the boardrooms of the nation's food consortiums to the glass doors of Madison Avenue. Food shopping, which up until then had been more of a local endeavor, started to become a national enterprise, and when people went to the store, there were certain brands they expected to see—the brands from the television commercials.

Swanson TV dinner was a turning point, not so much because of what it was, but because of what it represented: Our expectations for food were lowered. It proved that convenience was king. McDonald's, Burger King, Stouffer's, Wendy's, the prepared food in your supermarket, takeout pizza, cheap Chinese food—none of these ideas could have taken off as they did if Swanson hadn't paved the way with a simple equation that millions of Americans embraced: TV dinners = more free time. Who cared if it tasted bad? Who cared what was in it? It was easy to buy and even easier to make. It wasn't gourmet, but hey, few things were.

The one upside to that first batch of Swanson TV dinners was that they were humble in their portion sizes. Although high in sodium, the classic roasted, carved turkey dinner weighed in at a modest 250 calories. There was no way that a nation gorging itself on TV dinners would become overweight. The servings of turkey and peas were not only foul tasting, they were anemic by any of today's standards. That was soon to end.

For over thirty years I held various executive posts at some of the country's largest food and beverage corporations, and while I wasn't there for Swanson's revolution, I was certainly there for its wake. During the second half of the twentieth century, America ate like there was no tomorrow, consuming all manner of restaurant fare, prepared food, and packaged goods, and in the process making a handful of well-heeled, well-funded companies like Swanson incredibly profitable.

Every day during those thirty years, the ideas and methods we employed came straight from the example that Swanson had set, even if Swanson itself was not explicitly mentioned. The names of the game in the food business became convenience and marketing. With these two concepts employed in just the right way, you could sell almost anything. Swanson was never used as a case study and never spoken of as the definitive moment in food history that it was. In truth, it was a story that I'd heard passed around for years, but it was rare that people referred to it as a paradigm shift. Nevertheless, the lessons it represented and the implications it offered were clear to the entire industry. Cut losses and maximize profit through creative marketing and attractive packaging. If you can accomplish this, all else is secondary.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...