Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Lowest Common Denominator

I watch more TV now than I used to - not particularly proud of that. I'm a slightly-more-than-casual baseball fan, so I end up watching a lot of games. When I don't get up in between innings to refresh my beer (springtime means Columbus Brewing Company Apricot Ale) or, um, let it out, I end up watching commercials. Now I'm a fairly educated man, so I understand the point of advertising is essentially to fool you into wanting something, which is why I'm fascinated by the ads for Pizza Hut's Tuscani Pastas. Take this one, for instance:

If you're old enough to remember, it's essentially the same as "we replaced your regular coffee with Folgers crystals." Anybody with half a taste bud in their mouth knows that Folgers tastes like burnt horse turds compared to an artisan-roasted coffee, but if you need a caffeine fix, you'll take it. I haven't tried the Pizza Hut pasta, but I'd be willing to make two assumptions:

1) It's not good enough to be served in "America's finest restaurants," as Folgers would put it, and
2) It's probably not the worst Chicken Alfredo you'll ever taste in your life.

About 25% of people are what are called "supertasters," meaning they experience taste more intensely than average people - see the They Might Be Giants song "John Lee Supertaster" for more information. I've never been tested, but I like to think that I'm one of them for as much as I obsess about food. The basis for operating a successful restaurant is serving great food, but there's much more to it than just that. If only 25% of the population can really experience the true depth of a dish, that means 3 out of every 4 people who come to your restaurant think that a happy meal is as good as your aged porterhouse steak. So why do they spend the extra money?

Remember when I said that the point of advertising was to fool you into wanting something? We've been conditioned to believe that a steak tastes better than a processed hamburger, but only 25% of us will ever know for sure. We've also been conditioned to believe that a steak dinner is more elegant, more sophisticated, more romantic than the lowly burger. Where would you rather take a date: Ruth's Chris or Hardee's? Since 75% of people don't really enjoy food with their mouths, it's become a full-sensory experience, hence why that Pizza Hut pasta "tastes great" in a fancy NY bistro.

So what happens when you actually order it? I'll have to follow-up with an actual review, but I'm guessing it's not as good as it would be if you served it to me in a white tablecloth establishment. However, I'd put money on it being average, dare I say, re-orderable. Just because food comes from Pizza Hut doesn't mean they didn't have a chef prepare it at some point. And just because 75% of people don't taste food in all its glory doesn't mean they can't distinguish "yum" from "yuk." If they expect repeat business on a mass-market scale, it has to be pleasing to the lowest common denominator, which means it'll appeal to certain base responses from everyone. The Chicken Alfredo will be velvety-smooth, probably with a hint of savory smokiness from the meat, and a rich sauce (but not *too* rich). It'll be adequately salty due to the cheeses used to make Alfredo sauce, and spiced just enough to enjoy it without doctoring.

Doesn't sound bad, right? I haven't even tried it yet, but I instinctively know what it will taste like. There's a science to pleasing everyone that, shockingly, involves actual science as well as culinary skill.


Jaho said...

I've tried the Alfredo before, and thought it was super-bland. Although I do think it's at least as good as Olive Garden (not saying much in my book).

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