Cars, Communism & Ketchup
As East Germans huddled near the Berlin Wall, listening for signs of humanity, they heard the sounds of automotive freedom while West German cars drove to and fro. Taking the opportunity to get the people doing the work of the state a little faster, East German authorities vomited up their vehicular answer for the shackled masses: the tiny Trabant automobile. Promoted for its ability to seat four adults (and luggage!) it would go on to gain timeless infamy as the most perfect example of Communistic anti-progress amid subpar technology. The Trabant featured an eighteen horsepower, two-stroke engine that made more racket than a Rammstein concert in a two-stall washroom and belched more black smoke than a Kuwaiti oil field on fire. As a bonus, the Trabant would burst into flames on frontal impact and was delivered minus brake lights, turn signals, radio and much else. It did come with three separate keys though, ensuring owners could use the trunk, door and ignition. Still, expectant East Germans sat on wait lists for years to get one, ensuring that even the used (and even more pathetic) Trabant market would remain incredibly robust. It had to be. Fashioned out of duroplast (a quasi-plastic material mixed with recycled cotton fibre and paper) any Trabant left sitting around too long was at constant risk of being consumed by goats.
Now East Germany could have made a better car – but they didn’t have to. There was nothing else. And with no competition why even bother? The Trabant was good enough the way it was. And in East Germany then there existed no earthly reason to invest more money, time and energy in making it better one iota which, quite obviously, brings us to ketchup.
By all accounts, Heinz ketchup is the world’s most perfect food, and you don’t have to take my jaundiced word for it. Shock-haired outlier Malcolm Gladwell himself went and pulled the truth together in a famous piece he wrote for the New Yorker called “The Ketchup Conundrum” In it, he traced the history of the famous condiment and explored the reasons behind Heinz’s particular dominance of the ultimate compliment to good and bad food the world over. Basically, there are five known (and fundamental) tastes that the human palate recognizes: salty, sweet, sour, bitter and umami (which is basically, the fullness or “body” one senses in things like chicken soup, cheese or tomatoes). What Heinz did so brilliantly was hit all five tastes exactly right. By mastering the formula, Heinz has been rewarded with the lion’s share of the ketchup market ever since, which means there truly exists no earthly reason to invest more money, time and energy in trying to improve it in any way. But for some reason, they did.
Thanks to their blind adherence to “demon” capitalism and the constant drumbeat to sell ever more vats of ketchup, Heinz drilled down and located the weakest link in their otherwise bulletproof tomato confection: those horrific single serving fast-food packets.
You know them well. Plastic, dinky, squooshy little no-fun bags of not-enough ketchup that seem predestined to survive a nuclear war. Personally, to say I like them would be a stretch. Let’s just say that when it comes to my desire for ketchup versus the difficulty in opening the blasted things I’ve generally made peace with them. Heinz, it would seem, did not.
They obsessed for years, doing studies and tests. Then they built prototypes and tested some more. Then, they threw it all out and started again. More study and research. They made up fake mini-van interiors, hired people for focus groups, employed scientists and literally moved Heaven and Earth all to improve something that was arguably “good enough” but that only needed to be a little bit better. The result? Heinz’s new "Dip and Squeeze" packet that now allows the user to either squeeze the ketchup out through one end or peel the lid back for dipping. Shaped like a mini-ketchup bottle, the new package holds three times as much as the traditional packet. It costs more but the belief (hope) is that folks will find they use (and waste) far less due to not needing as many as they’re used to grabbing. Amazing.
So while I wasn’t losing any sleep over ineffectual ketchup delivery in my life H.J. Heinz and Co. was. I love that. And you should love that too. It’s the intrinsic beauty that exists solely within the guts and gore of the capitalistic machine so many claim to hate. For no other reason than a completely selfish desire for increased profits by another, my life gets to be improved a miniscule more than it might otherwise be. It took no effort, expense or even request on my behalf. On top of that, I (and everyone else) remain king in this particular equation as Heinz will now offer up their creation for approval, hoping that I might – MIGHT – deign to make expanded use of it. Talk about a wonderful world.
When the Berlin Wall finally fell, thousands of East Germans drove their clanking Trabants across the border and abandoned them forever, looking to live a life of personal freedom versus a centrally designed, and enforced, existence. I hope they jump in their now chosen cars and hit a fast-food drive-thru ASAP. Capitalism, I mean ketchup, is calling.