Want to know what you are? Hint: it’s what you consume.
“As William James observed, we must reflect that, when we reach the end of our days, our life experience will equal what we have paid attention to, whether by choice or default. We are at risk, without quite fully realizing it, of living lives that are less our own than we imagine.” — Tim Wu, The Attention Merchants
In an Aeon essay published last year titled “Drugs du Jour: How Each Generation Gets the Drugs it Deserves,” writer/historian Cody Delistraty argues that the drugs we use — and their influences on us — offer a window into the fears and desires of our times. This is illustrated by drugs like LSD in the 1950s and ’60s, and “smart drugs” now; the former because they addressed the underlying dissatisfaction that so many experienced during that time, and the latter because they enable the discovery of elation within what was once mundane: our work. The American obsession with work is well documented, and the popularity of a drug whose promise is the ability to work harder for longer is proof Delistraty’s argument — “how we get high reflects the desires and fears of our times” — is true.
Delistraty’s argument is true not only in the context of drugs, however, but in the context of everything that we consume. As author and Columbia professor Tim Wu points out in his book, The Attention Merchants, our lives are the sum of what we have paid attention to. Because what we consume is what captures our attention, it defines us. It follows that our discretionary purchases — the things we consciously choose to consume and exist outside the realm of bare necessities — reflect our insecurities. We do not buy a car, after all, because we will die without one, rather we buy a car because our society is at the point where existence within it without one is relatively less secure than existence within it with one, as measured by access to resources enabled by the car, and the car itself.
The corporations whose discretionary goods succeed, then, frame what our discretionary purchases are, and offer a window into what society truly is. It follows that each time a company releases a new discretionary good — especially one that goes against the status quo and appears to be, in some sense, a gamble — it is worth paying attention, because the success or failure of that release indicates much about how society is — or is not — evolving. Subway’s release of the Subway® Signature Wrap (henceforth SSW) is one such release.
When I first saw an ad for the SSW, I got excited, because I love wraps. And there’s a Subway® a few blocks from my apartment in Chicago. I’ve been a few times, but never deliberately. Once I even went in after buying groceries across the street because it was Tuesday and on Tuesday a six-inch Sweet-Onion Chicken Teriyaki is $3. And while $3 for a six-inch sub is a killer deal, and one I will take advantage of on occasion, there has always been this one nagging factor that has kept me from doing so more — that is, as you get towards the end of a Subway® sandwich, the dressing — especially a less viscous dressing, like Sweet Onion — has a tendency to seep out of the end of the sandwich and end up somewhere undesirable.
When crafted properly, then, the SSW has the potential to be a truly transcendent menu item: a well-organized, steel trap of ingredients out of which nothing falls, because nothing can. The SSW is an antidote to not just my anxiety, but that of anyone who has ever consumed a Subway® sandwich; that the latter might “leak,” or otherwise fall apart is a real, paralyzing fear, and it is a fear that is far from assuaged by the fifteen or so pieces of Subway®-emblazoned tissue paper that come along with each sandwich. These “napkins,” after all — aside from being insults to real ones everywhere — make gas station toilet paper seem luxurious.
If it is not clear already, I have many issues with Subway®; the idea of the SSW, however, is not one of them. I believe that SSWs will be successful, and clearly, Subway® does, too; that the largest fast food chain in history (by a landslide) — a company with nearly limitless resources to invest into market research — would release a product without being at least very sure of its eventual success is almost unimaginable. The more interesting question, then, is why Subway® believes the SSW will succeed. Here’s the CEO of Subway®, Susanne Greco, in a recent Restaurant Business article:
“[Subway® wraps] taste indulgent, so people like them…Customers are looking for new products, or products with more protein…I think a lot of people are looking for [wraps].”
Note the one key similarity between all of these sentences: the emphasis on the wants of the consumer (in bold). First, “[Subway® wraps] taste indulgent, so people like them.” Check. Second, “Customers are looking for new products, or products with more protein.” Check. Third, “I think a lot of people are looking for [wraps].” Definitely check.
If the point I’m getting at seems obvious, it’s because it is; that successful companies give people what they want is not any sort of grand insight. It is, however, interesting to acknowledge what the result of this release — success, or failure — says about society, especially in the context of my elaboration on Delistraty’s argument: it is not only the drugs we consume that give us windows into our questions and insecurities, it is everything — SSWs included.
If successful, the SSW will offer two unique insights into the state of society. First, it will be supplanting the sandwich — the very namesake of the Subway® brand, and an item that has come to define what it means to eat lunch not only in the United States, but elsewhere. This represents society’s continued gravitation away from the sit-down meal in favor of something quick; the opportunity cost of a sit-down lunch, after all, is 30–60 minutes that could otherwise be spent working, and the wrap is far more conducive to eating on the go than an incontinent sandwich would be. American society is intent on finding consumptive ways to enhance productivity, and the SSW, like Adderall or Soylent, is certainly one of those.
Second, the very structure of the SSW contradicts Subway’s recent marketing efforts; for ages, the general lack of quality of Subway’s ingredients was kept “under wraps,” and to put those same ingredients back under physical wraps, now, knowing they’re better, and after marketing efforts to the contrary, seems paradoxical. And yet it may not be. Wraps are a lazy solution to Subway’s issues with ingredient freshness; it is possible that instead of solving the problem, Subway is opting to literally “cover it up” with wraps. The SSW’s success, then, would indicate a relative lack of consumer concern for ingredient quality, which is unsurprising, given that people have a tendency to ignore that which they cannot see. And who are we kidding — the “Eat Fresh!” portion of Subway’s branding has always seemed hokey at best and downright dishonest at worst; it is also immediately contradicted by any trip into an actual franchise.
It is not only true, however, that the SSW’s success will reveal previously unrealized cultural questions or anxieties; it may also alter culture itself. As an example, whereas in other countries, enjoying a coffee is an activity in and of itself, the success and consequent ubiquity of the drive-thru, to-go cup, and cup-holder in the United States has rendered this decidedly not the case here. The SSW may do something similar. Here is Delistraty again:
“‘Every time a drug is invented that interacts with the brains and minds of users, it changes the very object of the study: the people who are using,’ says Henry Cowles, assistant professor of the history of medicine at Yale. On this reading, the idea that drugs create culture is true, to an extent, but it is likewise true that cultures can shift and leave a vacuum of unresolved desires and questions that drugs are often able to fill.”
This is not just true of drugs, it is true of products. And while it may not be that the desires and questions within said vacuum are as profound as those addressed by drugs like LSD and Adderall, it is true that drugs are not the only consumptive goods that shed light on society’s unmet desires and unanswered questions. Something as simple as a Subway® Signature Wrap can do it, too, even if those unmet desires are nothing more than the ability be more productive, or sit in the car and eat lunch, free of the grip of severe anxiety as a result of envisioning the contents of said lunch ending up somewhere undesirable. So too is it that fifteen or so pieces of Subway®-emblazoned tissue paper that they have the audacity to call “napkins” — Subway’s grand solution to its incontinent sandwiches prior to the wrap — is nothing if not a bull case for the SSW.