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Fantasies Are Not Just for Fiction

The Food Network, a television specialty show channel, was founded on April 19, 1993, by Reese Schonfeld and just a short eight months later made its debut on air November 23 of that same year (“Food Network”). The network airs both one-time and episodic programs about food and cooking and is seen in more than ninety million households. Programming for the network is divided into daytime coverage known as “Food Network in the Kitchen” and primetime coverage, which the network refers to as “Food Network Nighttime”. The “In the Kitchen” is generally dedicated to instructional cooking programs while the “Nighttime” coverage focuses on food-related entertainment programs, such as cooking competitions, food-related travel shows as well as reality shows (“Food Network”). When the Network first began the focus seemed to be simply to encourage the preparation of good meals and understanding food. Although the network and programming provide various recipes and information that seem helpful to provide quick meals while still covering the five food groups, recently the focus has shifted. The Food Network present day seems to be more about promoting an unattainable lifestyle than it is about promoting food. “Television has a history of creating stories that invite viewers to engage in fantasy” (Ketchum). With that being said, the presumed glamorous Food Network that our American culture has fallen in love with may not necessarily deserve as high of a status that it’s commonly believed to have. Because of it’s veiled use of persuasion, the deceiving image the network paints for the public, and the falsity of dreams it lures viewers to believe, the Food Network could possibly be placed in categories such as fantasies and staged reality series that claim to be “realistic”.

The psychology of persuasion plays an enormous role in the successful and rising interest of the Food Network and its programs. Professor Robert Cialdini provided detailed explanations and research for six key psychological traits that affect how one influences or persuades others (Cialdini). The Law of Influence 3, the Social Proof, and the Law of Influence 5, the Authority Trait, are two of Cialdini’s six laws the Food Network has used to manipulate ninety million households nationwide.

The third Law of Influence Cialdini identifies concerns social proof. He refers to this law and idea as “Monkey See, Monkey Do”. In his book, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, the principle of social proof is described as follows:

The greater the number of people who find any idea correct, the more the idea will be correct. This is where testimonials from satisfied clients and referrals are useful. They give credibility that the product and the sales person would not otherwise have. (114)

The thought behind this principle is ‘if a lot of people like me are doing it, it must be the right thing to do.’ He’s researched that individuals decide what they should do in a situation by looking at what similar others have done. Cialdini goes on to explain, “The ‘proof’ of what is correct isn’t grounded in the physical environment but in the social environment” (116). The second law of influence the Food Network uses to influence and persuade its viewers is the principle of authority trait. In Chapter Six of Cialdini’s book, the principle of authority trait can quickly and simply be explained with few words: Status confers greater attributes (208). In other words, people are more easily influenced by those they perceive to be legitimate authorities. “This response makes great sense because legitimate authorities have typically attained their positions by virtue of greater knowledge or skill or experience in the matter at hand” (208).

The Food Network beautifully but deceitfully combines these two principles to “reel” in their viewers. With ninety million households tuned in, word spreads quickly about the programs the network provides. One viewer may have found success after watching one specific show aired on the network and passed the word on; soon thousands are tuning in to watch. People become in a sense “bandwagon-ers” to the network and its programs simply because “a lot of people are doing it, so it must be right.” Likewise, my aunt and uncle attributed their avid Food Network viewing to the popularity and high-status of the chefs on the show. My aunt admitted the sole reason she watches the Food Network is because “they [the chefs] have become celebrities”. I believe this principle also applied to Bill Buford and impelled him to write Heat, a non-fiction record of his time spent in Batali’s kitchen. On page three of Heat, Buford repeatedly comments on Mario’s popularity: “Mario… is such a famous and proficient cook” and “to this day, I am astonished that I had the nerve to ask over someone of Batali’s reputation” (Buford 3). Although Mario Batalia, a Food Network deity, influences thousands daily about Italian cuisine, what perhaps influences them more to continue to tune in, is his notoriety and the deceiving image the network creates for its viewers.

The Food Network, although a nonfiction media, creates somewhat of a fabrication. My mother, a former Food Network devotee believes the premise of the network has shifted largely. “The network is no longer about making good food and understanding it, it’s become more about using food to impress other people… the shows seem to sell the idea of ‘having’ food knowledge, without actually having any.” Likewise Chris Nixon, a French Culinary Institute – trained chef from the Boathouse on Coldwater Lake, seems to share similar views. During the panel discussion, he mentioned the inaccurate portal the food network provides of the food industry. The kitchens appear clean and the chefs calm and collected. The Food Network attempts to create an image of what the “ideal” kitchen atmosphere and meal should look like. However, in reality it’s not necessarily achievable or realistic. Average Americans tune in daily to make an effort at creating the idyllic “Norman Rockwell” Thanksgiving meal, but it’s not always attainable. The Food Network is more about promoting an unattainable lifestyle than it is about promoting food.

The Food Network is misleading because it creates a falsity of dreams, which viewers in turn believe. Viewers are told their ‘dreams’ should be realized through “the acquiring and use of particular goods” (Ketchum). The network and programming “offers the possibility of pleasure by creating the fantasy of an intimate connection to viewers and the promise of satisfaction through consumption” (Ketchum). In other words, the Food Network focuses on creating a fabricated connection with its viewers with the promise of satisfaction through consumption. The network attempts to create a bond with its viewers through promises of success and fulfillment with their programs. It’s deceptive in the way that it gains viewers with assurance that they will find the pleasure and contentment from their programs and recipes.

Although the Food Network is nonfiction, it too relies on a “similarly fictitious construction of consumer realities” (Ketchum). The network ingeniously creates fantasy food consumer worlds through production conventions and narrative (Ketchum).

I understand, to an extent, the fixation with the Food Network and its programming, but it’s necessary for viewers to understand that not all things seen in the shows are realistic. It’s left to us as viewers to decipher the real from the unreal. In contrast, I do give the Food Network some credit for keeping food in the national discourse. “It is argued that the [food] network is an important element in the intricate web of discourses that sustain consumer culture” (Ketchum). And as we observed with Rick Dockery, the main character in John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza, food in America has never and continues to not hold the prestige it does in other countries. Just as one can’t understand the details of movies by reading an Entertainment Weekly magazine, one can’t understand the complexity of food by watching the Food Network.

Works Cited

Buford, Bill. Heat: an Amateur’s Adventures as Kitchen Slave, Line Cook, Pasta-maker,
and Apprentice to a Dante-quoting Buthcer in Tuscany. Canada: Random House of Canada Limited, 2006. Print.

Cialdini, Robert B. “Authority: Directed Deference.” Influence: the Psychology of
Persuasion. New York: HarperCollins, 2009. 208. Print.

—. “Social Proof: Truths Are Us.” Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion. New
York: HarperCollins, 2009. 114+. Print.

Nixon, Chris. “Panel Discussion on Heat”, Trine University. Oct. 2010.

Grisham, John. Playing for Pizza. New York: Dell Book, 2008. Print.

Ketchum, Cheri. “The Essence of Cooking Shows: How the Food Network Constructs
Consumer Fantasies.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 29.3 (2005): 217-234. Academic Search Premier. EBSCO. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.

“Food Network.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Web. 29 Nov. 2010.