At first you might think you had stumbled upon the tiniest proof of synergy. You are seated on an airplane. The stewardess trudges by with her cart, doling out drinks and bags of pretzels. You take a break from flipping through the airline magazine's lead article about "Exciting Nebraska" as a business destination. You tear open the pretzels and look out the window at the white cumuli underwing. And, in the pensive haze induced by recycled, germ-laden air and dreamy vistas, you happen to glance down and are slightly disturbed from your reverie to read, "Trust us. Don't open the window to check the weather."
It's an ad. On the pretzel bag. For the Weather Channel.
Is this some new species of meta-advertising? In an era when branding has been elevated to a cultural ideology with its own jargon, the development on the snack bag signals the emergence of a new class structure among products — a branded proletariat and a branded gentry.
The product aristocrats are climbing upon the backs of the new serfs everywhere. Some banks narrowcast ads for other products on their ATM screens while you wait for your cash. Filling stations are selling ad space in the tiny screens on their gas pumps. One company will underwrite your monthly car payment if you permit an "autowrap," which turns your entire vehicle into a rolling billboard. Essentially, our landscape has become so dominated by advertising that the only unscarred vista left is the product itself.
The idea of putting ads on snack bags — AKA "Brand in the Hand" advertising — belongs to Harvey Alpert, 55, an airline-food broker based in Malibu, California. "If I were selling garments, I'd be a rep," Alpert says peppily, by way of introduction. "If I were Tom Cruise's guy, I'd be an agent. In the food business, it's a broker." For most of his career, Alpert has been the middleman who puts name-brand products in the hands of airline passengers.
"What we've convinced companies like Minute Maid to do," he explains, "is to use passengers who are strapped into their seats to try a wet sample" — that is, the product itself. At some point, Alpert realized that what he had was an advertiser's dream: high-income passengers who were literally confined to chairs by straps and for whom the arrival of a snack occasioned tiny Skinnerian sensations of gratitude and happiness. The only thing missing was a set of those metal eyelid restraints used on Alex in A Clockwork Orange. "Remember when you were a kid and your mother gave you your cereal?" Alpert says. "Well, how many times did you read the cornflakes box?"
Most of the products that Alpert represents are from name-brand aristocrats who would not be interested in renting out their package to somebody else. Try to imagine Nike renting out space on the side of a shoe. "But we do represent one company that isn't a name brand and that doesn't care to be a name brand, called King Nut Company. It's a family-owned business in Cleveland," Alpert says. King Nut does occasionally brand its products, distributing snacks under the amiable moniker Summer Harvest. But on the Brand in the Hand bags, the Summer Harvest name can only be found in small type on the back, just beneath the paragraph that tells us the snack is made from partially hydrogenated soybeans, whey, and beet powder.
A kind of throwback to pre-postmodern production (it just makes what it makes), King Nut and its Summer Harvest line stand in sharp contrast to all of those hot, Tom Peters-inspired firms that hold to the modern paradox of branding: Creating a brand perceived to be a quality item is more important than actually making one. Summer Harvest "has no designs on being a retail label. It doesn't care," Alpert says. So, through a series of lucky encounters, he wound up talking to the Weather Channel about an advertising campaign on the Summer Harvest snack bags. Shortly thereafter, fashion designer Kenneth Cole came calling.
"We've been in e-commerce for four years," says Ruth Voorhies, 29, director of corporate communications for Kenneth Cole. The Brand in the Hand idea, she says, was an offbeat way to drive "travelers, clearly affluent," to their Web site. Their first campaign premiered this past May with a beige-colored bag that was printed with a Jenny Holzer-style aphorism: "Want a quick byte? kennethcole.com." According to Voorhies, the reaction at the Web site was so positive that a second bag is coming out this fall, bearing an even more laconic message: "Site seeing? kennethcole.com."
The connection between strapped-in, high-income travelers and the Web seems to be the key to the campaign's success. And Alpert plans to expand the range of options in this regard. Another pre-postmodern brand is Oakfield Farms, owned by . . . Harvey Alpert! "You know those little cheese-and-cracker packages you get on some airlines? We make those," Alpert says. He intends to sell CD-ROM Web cards that will be inserted into the snack packs.
"Then you could do all kinds of stuff with it on your computer," Alpert says. The entire flight could become a kind of full-body advertising submersion.
And that's just the beginning. Alpert hopes to blanket the entire airborne eating experience with advertising by growing his business to put ads on beverage napkins and "that paperlike liner on top of the plastic tray." What about vomit bags? "You know," Alpert says, "we talked about it. We thought about it. But I just wouldn't go there."
But this is America, after all, so someone will go there. In fact, Herb Kelleher, CEO of Southwest Airlines, has already landed. At a recent job fair to recruit fresh employees, his team passed out vomit bags printed with the slogan "Sick of your job?"
Jack Hitt is a contributing writer for Harper's, The New York Times Magazine, and the public radio program "This American Life." Visit Harvey Alpert & Co. on the Web (www.harveyalpertco.com).