“Classifying” Margarine: The Early Class-Based Marketing of a Butter Substitute in Sweden (1923-1933)

O'Hagan, Lauren (2022). “Classifying” Margarine: The Early Class-Based Marketing of a Butter Substitute in Sweden (1923-1933). Global Food History (In press).

Abstract

From its inception in 1869, margarine was considered a working-class food, associated with poverty and inferiority. In the early twentieth century, Swedish margarine brands set about to change public perception of the product, investing vast sums of money in extensive marketing campaigns to showcase it as suitable for the middle classes. However, wanting to retain as much market share as possible, they also continued to direct margarine advertisements at the working classes. Thus, a seemingly paradoxical situation emerged where the same brands, often in the same newspapers, published advertisements aimed at two distinct audiences. This paper uses multimodal critical discourse analysis to examine a large body of margarine advertisements produced in Sweden between 1923 and 1933. Specifically, it considers how brands appealed to either working-class or middle-class identities, socialisation, relationships, and rituals in the arguments they put forward about the values of margarine. It finds that middle-class advertisements were focused on promoting margarine as exclusive and luxurious, challenging prejudices and encouraging them to learn from the working classes, while working-class advertisements centred around respectability and keeping up appearances, valuing frugality and thrift and commending traditional ways of life and regional/national customs. Overall, it argues that the early twentieth century stands as a unique period in the history of margarine in Sweden, demonstrating how class-based marketing can be hugely powerful in changing public perceptions of a product and, in this case, having a major impact on the increasing number of margarine users in the country.

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