The pervasive culture wars: What makes Marmite and Hawaiian pizza so polarising?
Will Coldwell explores two of the great culture wars of our time: Marmite and Hawaiian pizza. But what actually happened to make these two foods so polarising? We take a look at the marketing techniques old and new that helped to keep them in our collective consciousness.
You can listen to both articles from 1843, on Curio: Marketing Marmite: how an advertising agency started a culture war and The great Hawaiian pizza culture war.
Keeping old school current
How did Marmite go from looking “like a brown stain on toast” to being one of the most sought-after foods of the pandemic?
Marmite in its most basic form has been around since the mid-nineteenth century and found its home most-likely because British people have a tendency to spread things on toast.
It’s safe to say that marketing the product was easy around this time. It was sent to troops on the front lines during the First World War thanks to its nutritional qualities, and even to prisoner of war camps during World War 2. It was even recommended as a cure for anaemia!
Then marketed as the “growing-up spread” it was peddled to mothers in health clinics, because research found people were more likely to eat Marmite as an adult if they were fed it as a child.
However, sales hit a road bump in the 70s when the National Health Service replaced clinics with welfare centres and selling products was no longer appropriate. So, advertising agency BMP DDB were tasked with turning Marmite’s fortunes around.
Andy McLeod and Richard Flintham had the tough task of overhauling public opinion, but when McLeod turned to Flintham and said: “‘I fucking hate Marmite.’ And he said ‘Oh, I love it.’” they realised they’d hit the nail on the head.
The Hate/Mate campaign that aired in 1996 was brave and ultimately, a stroke of genius. Two 30-second ads captured the polarising viewpoints: One featuring people bathing in the stuff and the other featuring people chaining up jars and throwing them into the ocean.
The debate was born and has been ingrained in our social psyche ever since. Although, the argument might be more performative than actual truth. In a recent survey, prawn cocktail Pringles were found to actually be more polarising.
The power of social media
Another food that divides cultures globally, is the infamous Hawaiian pizza.
A comparatively young product compared to Marmite, the pizza was invented in Canada in 1962. Sam Panopoulos, the creator, was a restaurant owner and Greek immigrant who came over to the country at the age of 20.
When he began experimenting with pizza toppings, everyone was doing it. Dessert pizzas (even I’ve seen the occasional Nutella and banana) and potato with sour cream were just some of the examples.
The pizza lived a relatively unprovocative life right up until 2009, when a new Facebook page was created that is thought to have started the whole online debate: “Pineapple does NOT belong on PIZZA!” On one side, people were implying that it was the worst thing ever to like pineapple on pizza by saying that Hitler liked it and on the other side, were the Knights of Pineapple — a Reddit group.
It’s easy to see that the Hawaiian pizza debate started online, unlike the Marmite debate, which was orchestrated by more traditional television advertising. With Italian nationals protecting the sanctity of their cuisine; country leaders like Justin Trudeau weighing in, and celebrities taking to Twitter to declare their sides: if there’s one thing that we can collectively accept, it’s that we can all agree to disagree.
Also, it’s worth noting that the Hawaiian debate started somewhat organically. There was no incentive to drive sales, and no one had intended for the food to spark debate.
Will Coldwell suggests that these kinds of debates are performative in their polarisation, not least because they offer some level of escape from the more consequential debates we hold in our everyday lives. It’s a lot easier to come down on a side of the Hawaiian debate or declare that you love or hate Marmite, than it is to voice your opinion on a humanitarian crisis.
As Coldwell says: “The Hawaiian remains a refreshingly low-stakes, light-hearted battle. It’s something everyone can enjoy. A bit like pizza.” and the same can be said for Marmite.