As I often do while snacking from a container, I absentmindedly contemplated the back of this Cheez-It box until I realized exactly what I was reading. The top of the box sports lettering saying “Introducing Cheese High’s Graduating Class.” Beneath this, there are nine alternative Cheez-It flavors, each represented by a round of cheese with a personified characteristic. Although clearly the advertising for different flavors is attempting to garner audience amusement, many of the characteristics of “students” are offensively stereotyped. This is interesting because the advertising plays right into our innate agreement with these societal stereotypes. The Cheez-It company is not making any absurd or offensive statements by representing the low-fat cheddar variety by a chunk of cheese sporting a sweatband and saying “Does this make my cheese look big?”; however, while trying to be funny and sell other products, the advertising of this common snack reveals the societal stereotypes that we often take for granted.
Another flavor, white cheddar, is represented by a pale round of cheese wearing glasses and saying “I don’t get out much.” We are surrounded by these stereotypical messages daily and often do not think to question them, especially when they’re posed on something as seemingly harmless as a Cheez-It box. Racial stereotyping continues on the box with a four-cheese flavor sporting an Italian flag, and a mustached piece of cheese saying “You like-a da cheese, no?” Of course, not all of the images are racially loaded, but all of them are stereotypical, which means we will take all of them for granted. If we see racial or sexist stereotypes (for example) surrounded by other non-offensive stereotypes, we may not notice their prevalence or their abusiveness.
It’s interesting to look at this box from Saussure’s study of symbol theory. These images on the box are clearly symbols that we make meaning from. For example, we see the Italian flag and the moustache, and normalize that the cheese is speaking with an accent. We see the pale “skin” and the glasses, and therefore the fact that he/she “doesn’t get outside much” does not surprise us. We have clearly stigmatized these symbols either negatively (like the low-fat cheese) or positively (Cheez-It “Big” wears boxing gloves and is saying “the bigger, the better”), and generally tend to accept those stereotypes as fact.
A question to ponder:
Relatively recent slang “vanilla” and “white bread” refer to something/someone boring. We see this “white=boring” idea reflected in the Cheez-It advertising. Did the slang “vanilla” derive from “flavorless” or is this boring-white connection more than simple coincidence?