Mulino Bianco and the Consumption of Fantasy

Un biscottino speciale

Like an old yellow page pulled out from a child’s primer, Barilla’s Mulino Bianco biscuit bags evoke an idyllic past, purifying the consumption and commerce inherent in the foodstuff’s mass production. Introduced in 1975, Mulino Bianco, white mill in Italian, is the pastry spin off of Northern Italian pasta giant, Barilla. Manufacturing treats typically found in local pasticcerie and panifici, Mulino Bianco sells breakfast biscuits, soft American-style breads, snacks and desserts. Most of these goods are packed in a pale yellow bag. But this bag isn’t the only feature that unifies the brand. Mulino Bianco infuses an aura of sentimental tradition through their products, linguistically and visually dividing them from other food companies.

Italian supermarkets frequently produce generic versions of Mulino Bianco products. Given the company’s presence at grocery stores across the Belpaese, Mulino Bianco may be seen as the Italian answer to America’s Pepperidge Farm or Britain’s McVitie’s. Crunchy digestives are remarkably similar to hard macine cookies and squishy chocolate chip muffins resemble soft pangocciole. If certain textures and tastes are the domain of industrial foods, Barilla uses Mulino Bianco to insert Italian tradition and Italian tastes into the global mass-production dialogue.

Whether it’s a softened milk-dunked cookie at breakfast, chewy brioche for merenda (snack time) or soft cake for a cheeky after dinner treat, Mulino Bianco’s range of products ensures that that throughout the day Italians ‘mangia sano, torna alla natura’, eat healthfully, return to nature. Given the ample biscuit varieties — and heavy advertising investment — cookies can be seen as Mulino Bianco’s primary product. Since a typical Italian colazione (breakfast) consists of a couple biscotti and a drink, Italians are most likely to interact with the brand at breakfast. Mulino Bianco reaffirms the cookies’ place at the wholesome breakfast table through the serving recommendations posted on their website and on the backs of bags.[1] These recommendations illustrate the ideal Italian consumer for each cookie, while applying reassuring gender roles to the entire family. Whether the bags describe a dynamic man, sedentary woman or young child, everyone knows their position at the Mulino Bianco breakfast table.

mb10_-_mulino_bianco_tarallucci_400_gYet these positions momentarily fade away as the family unites, gazing at the Tarallucci bag.[2] From the background illustration and the antiquated serif font to the literary conjugations and the rustic cookie, Mulino Bianco promotes industrial foodstuffs through visual symbols that juxtapose the mass-market treat with nature’s nourishment. On the straw yellow background, faded colours accent a large image composed of short brown lines. If the pale hues allude to aged paper, the pencil mark lines feign a hand drawn image. The muted pastels might be watercolours or coloured pencil. If these soft colours evoke a child’s nursery and the drawing a kid’s handiwork, the Tarallucci logo reinforces this childhood atmosphere. The large ‘T’ juxtaposed with smaller letters resemble posters teaching children their ABCs — ‘D is for Dog’, ‘C significa Cane’. Mulino Bianco’s bag teaches the eater that T is for Tarallucci and that, by extension, Mulino Bianco stands for an innocent breakfast.

Pastoral imagery may be seen as an extension of the childhood motif — chickens, eggs, and trees frequently grace baby blankets and clothing — but the rural idyll also contrasts the eater’s present with an idealised past. In both their packaging and advertisements Mulino Bianco cites nature and rural nostalgia as key themes. Combining nature — rolling fields of grain, a chicken named Rosita — and rural nostalgia — playing in the countryside, farm-fresh eggs — the product appeals to both parents and kids by accessing a shared fantasy of a better life. Grabbing the bag of Tarallucci, the adult eater returns to a world where childhood innocence reigns. Meanwhile, the child enters the storybook world where chicken roam free and biscuits abound. The biscuit bag ushers parents and children into a pure space where contemporary life gives way to a paradoxical abundance of simplicity, as well as an abundance of cookies.

Mulino Bianco uses serif fonts to depict the return to the past, purifying their marketing techniques. Parents recognize the typeface as a rejection of flashy computer generated fonts and kids recognize it as the font found in storybooks. The lettering, however, is designed to build the brand’s sentimental image. Since this old fashioned style does not appear on other Barilla logos and packaging, the typeface rejects the presence in the sense that it sets Mulino Bianco apart from other common supermarket lines. Thus, the supposedly old time-y font allows Mulino Bianco to refute industrial food products, while utilizing clever marketing techniques.

The slogan also cites the past to highlight the cookie’s role in a better, pure, lifestyle, ‘chi fosse veramente la pastafrolla ce l’aveva stampato sul volto’ — ‘the real pastafrolla/shortbread had it printed on their face’. Pastafrolla is a crumbly dough similar to shortbread, but enriched with eggs.[3] Simple pastafrolla biscuits are served at panifici and now, Mulino Bianco asserts, more conveniently available at the grocery store. Although Mulino Bianco was one of the first Italian companies to introduce mass-produced foodstuffs, their use of the past conjunctive — a sophisticated tense used to express emotion — manipulates time, flipping their position from creator of processed food to defender of tradition. Whereas it was previously simple to discern real pastafrolla from imitations, sub-par grocery store biscuits now dominate. Mulino Bianco implies the consumer must choose: either buy Tarallucci or waste your time searching in vain for the real pastafrolla.

The past imperfect phrase ‘ce l’aveva stampato sul volto’ — had it printed on their face — suggests that Mulino Bianco presents Tarallucci as the solution to fake biscuits. If the image of the biscuit — marked with an image of a mill, mulino, and the name Tarallucci — references ‘stampato sul volto’, then Barilla equates the image of their biscuit with the real pastafrolla, as it used to be made. The past imperfect — which frequently begins fairytales ‘c’era una volta’, once upon a time — emphasises those golden days. Mulino Bianco manipulates tenses to flip the dialogue, switching their role from producer of fake biscuits, or antagonist of quality, to baker of authentic pastafrolla, or champion of tradition.

While Barilla ensures the cookie looks appropriately rustic — the faint gleam of an egg wash is just visible — they also ensure the cookie cites the brand’s name, Mulino Bianco. The mulino in the middle of the cookie, ostensibly the same one featured in the background image, allows it to carry the brand’s identity after being deposited into the biscuit tin.[4] Although the consumer may be familiar with the word mulino, they are unlikely to produce an immediate definition. The term’s vagueness allows Barilla to define mulino as they wish. In this case, the mill is equated with a good cookie and the tradition that made it. Thus, the picture on the cookie — and image of the cookie on the package — conveys Mulino Bianco brand, ensuring the eater connects with the company’s message whether or not they see the logo.

Back of Mulino Bianco Tarallucci bag

The back of the package contextualizes Mulino Bianco’s wholesome attitude in contemporary society, suggesting that a natural lifestyle can quell modern woes. Written in a bold and a hand drawn version of the serif on the front, the back proclaim: ‘il nostro impegno per un mondo buono’ — our commitment to a good world. The second person plural brings the consumer into the Mulino Bianco family, allowing the viewer to personalise the company’s social responsbility. The disparate fonts juxtapose innocence, the child’s hand, with the eater’s reality, the bold letters, to assert Mulino Bianco’s social relevance. Underneath, in an italicised version of the same font, the steps to a better world are clarified. The cookie’s asserted veracity is cited to reinforce the wholesomeness of Barilla’s product, ‘è fatto di: ricette semplici, ingredienti di qualità, rispetto per l’ambiente’ — it’s made of: simple recipes, quality ingredients, respect for the environment. Thus, Mulino Bianco asserts that true ingredients and family ties purify the eater’s modern world.

Highlighting the idea of recipes and ingredients could put Mulino Bianco biscuits into a dialogue on consumption and health, but the company avoids dealing with these thorny issues by highlighting the words ‘semplici’, simple, ‘qualità’, quality and ‘l’ambiente’, the environment, rather than emphasising the connecting recipes, ingredients and respect. Variously marked in green, blue and orange, these notions bring the consumer to the natural world; the biscuit is the vehicle. While the colours could be interpreted like the red light/green light nutrition signage system, given Mulino Bianco’s emphasis on nature it seems more likely that the colours reference earth, water and sun. The Mulino Bianco consumer refers to mother nature, not macronutrients, to discern good foods from bad ones. If interpreted as a parallel with the hand-drawn image on the front, then the blue (quality) represents the clouds; the green (simple) represents the earth and the grass; and the orange (environment) represents the biscuit itself. Thus, Mulino Bianco argues that in a quality world, the land provides the simple ingredient for bringing the consumer back in touch with the environment, which they can perform on a daily basis by eating their Tarallucci for breakfast.

Through the manipulation of pastoral imagery, an imaginary past and contemporary quality, Mulino Bianco ascribes a natural, wholesome meaning to their mass produced industrial products. As Mulino Bianco expands and exports their products, these foodstuffs become increasingly synonymous with Italy. It remains to be seen how this will impact the image of Italy as a nation driven by regional food culture. It seems certain, however, that more research needs to be done into how Mulino Bianco has impacted the Italian’s diet in the past forty years. While Mulino Bianco originally evoked nostalgia for the good old days, those good old days now include the brand’s itself.

[1] On the backs of earlier biscuit bags, Mulino Bianco included detailed descriptions of how to include the cookie into a healthy breakfast.

[2] They could unite over any of the many biscuit bags. Why Tarallucci? The author is biased and prefers this biscuit to Mulino Bianco’s other products.

[3] ‘Pasta frolla’ in Slow Food, 2010. The Slow Food Dictionary to Italian Regional Cooking. Bra: Slow Food Editore. p 400.

[4] Not just a British or American mainstay, biscuit tins and boxes can be found throughout Italy. Mulino Bianco frequently runs promotions offering them.

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