Voyage to the Unbranded Planet, 1982

Ready for some hard-hitting social satire? From the mind of a 17-year old? Well, look elsewhere. Because this story isn’t that. I thought it was at the time, though. And nobody ever told me it wasn’t. So maybe you decide.

Back in the early 80s, grocery stores all over the US saw their first wave of “unbranded” products, also referred to as “generics.” Unless they were confined to their own aisle, you could find them right next to the big brands. The packaging was uniformly black and white with no logos or recognizable product names. (See examples here.) Supposedly, they came from mainstream manufacturers but were cheaper due to lower production costs and zero advertising. Unemployment was rising, after all, and dollars weren’t stretching as far as they used to.

Strapped parents warmed up to them for the price, assuming their kids would eat whatever was brought home and not care about quality. (Oh, how wrong they were.) The unintended experiment this brought about was a national blind taste test. Would your perception change if your expectations changed? For example, if the exact same product came in a bag of “Fritos” and a bag of “Corn Chips,” would they taste different to you simply because of the delivery system?

In fact, there was no way to know if the product was exactly the same, because the manufacturer’s name was left off the package. So really, you didn’t quite know what you’d be getting. It could be a bland knockoff. But maybe you’re just imagining it because the bag didn’t preset your expectations. Were our parents saving a few dollars in exchange for an uncontrolled experiment in consumer psychology?

By the time I started buying my own groceries, generics had pretty much faded away, so I didn’t have to face the choice gauntlet myself. But when I was 17 and they showed up in my own home, it set off a different kind of alarm bell. To me, it was a symbol of willful mediocrity. This was intolerable. Somehow, I had to fire back.

In an earlier article, I recounted my first meeting with a fanzine publisher in fall ’81, a woman named Cathy Ford. Her home-baked company was called Gweetna Press, and she was kind of a goofball. One day, the spirit moved her to publish an unbranded fanzine. As with the grocery products, the only way it differed from her other ‘zines was the packaging. When she told me she was going to put out the first one in August 1982, this is the story I submitted. Read it…if you DARE.

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