The baby snack for single adults
The curious story of Singles by Gerber, the 1970s food for "whenever you eat alone"
Hello, Snackers. Today we’re going back to 1974, the year Nixon resigned, “Blazing Saddles” was released, and Gerber decided to expand its customer base beyond babies. I’ll let you decide which of these was the biggest story.
Singles by Gerber
It’s great fun, sometimes, to read marketing studies and trend pieces from across the decades and see what’s changed and what hasn’t and how much of what seems like change is really just a variation on something old, like how every musician rips off Pachelbel. My favorite part about those marketing studies is how earnest the authors always sound in their assessment that kids these days are just fundamentally different from kids of years past. The other day, I found one that decreed:
Four trends are likely to characterize [a specific generational cohort] as consumers: 1) A focus on innovation, 2) An insistence on convenience, 3) An underlying desire for security, and 4) A tendency toward escapism.
Can you guess when that was published and who it’s describing? No! If you say you can, I say you’re lying!
Because, yes, that’s a reasonable list of broad-brush consumer ideals, but it’s self-evidently not any deep insight into a particular age group or era. (The answers, by the way: it’s from 2013 and it’s about Gen Z.) Those for trends are, in fact, timeless: innovation can mean anything from a chariot to thalidomide to an iPhone, and a yearning for convenience and security is similarly is applicable to any generation—and so, too, is escapism, which is nothing more than a desire to find respite from the societal pressures imposed by the constant quests for innovation, convenience, and security.
Anyway, much of product marketing is bullshit. You, a random person reading a newsletter on a December day, are probably just as savvy as some corporate VP when it comes to understanding consumer desires and what products will or will not sell. The planet is littered with the colorfully-packaged detritus of consumer goods no one actually wants, to say nothing of the crap no one needs, but which some company spent millions to produce and market because it seemed cool. And some of that scattered debris of capitalist excess fizzles so spectacularly that it lives on in memory as an example of Epic Product Fails, added to the written time capsules of CNN listicles or a book called What Were They Thinking?
Which is to say: Meet Singles by Gerber, which launched in 1974.
Even in this black-and-white image, you can see the appeal of the plated food, so artfully staged and photographed. The beef over noodles? Yum! The sweet and sour pork? Pass me some right now!
But as you have no doubt deduced, Gerber wasn’t actually offering you those entrees in that format—it was selling little jars that looked just like baby food and were promoted as something to eat when you’re alone.
As I said, you may not be a marketing genius, but you can probably offer a few thoughts on why this product failed quickly, lasting about one year before Gerber pulled it in 1975.
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It’s worth considering the data points that Gerber executives were working with when they came up with this concept.
First, there was the demographic reality that fewer kids were being born. The postwar, uh, baby boom had tapered off, and while the oldest members of that generation were approaching thirty, birth rates were down, from 4.2 million children born in 1960 to 3.2 million in 1972. For companies that specialized in products for babies, this was a major problem for profits. “Gerber stockholders have reasons to rue the increased use of contraceptives,” business reporter Milton Moskowitz wrote in 1974. “Sales have been static and earnings last year were the lowest since 1962. On the New York Stock Exchange, Gerber stock has plunged from $53 to $12.” (You heard the man: gotta keep making babies so corporations can maintain their profits!)
The other demographic trend—related to the first—was that marriage rates were also down. It was the “Rise of the ‘Singles,’” as US News & World Report put it in a feature story in 1974, the 40 million unwed adults representing $205 billion in buying power. Sales of small sports cars were rising, as were the number of singles bars. The Motion Picture Association of America estimated that 40 percent of single people went to the movies in a given week (compared to 16 percent of the general population) and was starting to make movies with them in mind. Food companies also adjusted accordingly: Green Giant introduced boil-in-bag entrees and Stouffer’s made ready-to-heat meals in smaller sizes, both of which represented relatively straightforward changes in the brands’ longstanding approaches, tweaks to increase convenience or decrease quantity.
Gerber, though, was trying to do everything at once: make up for the flagging sales of baby food and also reach all those cool young singles. The company’s research showed that ten percent of baby food was consumed by adults. So you can picture a room full of executives poring over all this information—brainstorming, pontificating, probably smoking and drinking, too—until someone goes, “I’ve got it!”
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Singles by Gerber came in several flavors, including Beef Burgundy, Ham Casserole, Golden Chicken ‘n Sauce Supreme, Beef with Mushroom Gravy, Turkey Mornay, Sweet and Sour Pork, Chicken Madeira, and Creamed Beef. The pitch took a two-pronged approach:
You liked us when you were a kid, so you’ll like us now.
It’s so easy! You just eat it from the jar!
TV dinners had been around for a fully twenty years at this point (here’s a great Smithsonian story on that history) and meal replacement shakes were twenty years into their own run (here’s that story), but Gerber was trying to stake out a middle ground, with the flavor of the former and the convenience of the latter. Unlike the meal replacement shakes, though, Singles by Gerber weren’t intended to be low-calorie or part of a diet. They were simply convenient.
(It’s interesting to note that, unlike nearly every other food ad of the time, the Gerber ones aren’t gendered. They’re appealing to both men and women, particularly those who feel overworked but also not necessarily fully grown up—the ones struggling with adulting, to put it in modern terms. If this product debuted today, you can imagine a million think pieces from cranky boomer pundits about the immaturity of today’s twentysomethings.)
As it turned out, the obvious convenience of Singles by Gerber couldn’t overcome the other factors, especially the way it was advertised. Gerber’s first pitch—“Look at you! All grown up!”—was condescending and its second—literally, “Eat this when you’re alone”—focused on the solitary nature of being unmarried while also cloaking the product in a sense of shame by saying, explicitly, that is was not something you’d eat around friends.
Curiously, for a product made by a company used to targeting parents of adorable infants, there was no joy in the marketing of Singles by Gerber. No fun, no verve. Milton Moskowitz called it a “desperate effort” on Gerber’s part, and that energy was evident in the product itself—to many consumers, it felt like a desperate food for desperate people.
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It’s not hard to picture a world in which Gerber succeeded in making easy-to-eat meals for grown-ups on the go. Soylent is still very much a thing—and if you’re not familiar with this particular product, let me pause to say (1) congrats and (2) it’s not people, despite the name—as are any number of other drinkable meal replacements and protein bars. Gerber has the food science to pull it off.
But as you understand, dear reader, and many executives apparently do not, developing and marketing a product isn’t just about whether or not people enjoy a particular flavor profile or feel a sense of nostalgia for their youth. It’s also about telling them who they are, in a way that they appreciate.
Soylent is, excuse me, a fucking terrible name and not a product that appeals to me at all, but I’m not their audience—their sweet spot is people who view food as “an engineering problem,” something that keeps the body going while you work, enjoyment be damned. It works for its consumers because it’s a reflection of their self-perception as high-functioning machines in need of fuel.
Singles by Gerber was something else: a food that spoke to its young, single potential customer base and offered them not reassurance or whimsy but a life as textureless and unsatisfying as the contents of those little jars. The was product was not terrible as an innovation, but it was atrocious as an attitude—which means, honestly, we’ll probably see another version soon, as a subscription service backed by millions in VC funding. The little glass jars will feature a back-in-fashion 1970s font; the ads on Instagram will be colorful and playful but also focused on convenience. Call it Singles by Juicero. You heard it here first.
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