Wholesomeness, the whole picture

28 Apr


Words and cultures are dynamic—they change over time. Even something as basic as family. Family originally referred to the servants of a household, then an entourage that went around with a high-ranking person, then a whole household (parents, children, servants).

Marketing campaigns are meant to tie companies to cultural and personal values. In doing so, they reflect what various keywords have come to mean and they are part of how those words themselves change. A good example of this is Honey Maid’s recent campaign around “This Is Wholesome”, which features a two-dad family, a rocker family, a single dad, an interracial family, and a military family. The first video launched on March 10, 2014 (6,370,863 views on YouTube as of this writing).

There are several interesting dimensions to this campaign (1) What is the meaning of wholesome and how has it changed? (2) Since this was a deliberate marketing campaign, how can we measure if it was effective for Honey Maid? And of course (3) what are the awesomest other words that end in -some?

As you can imagine, applying wholesome to gay dads generated a lot of conversation and a fair amount of hate mail. A month after the original video, Honey Maid launched a follow-up that reaffirmed their position (3,785,968 views on YouTube):

Measuring effectiveness

It’s easy enough to boil down campaign effectiveness for Honey Maid: do people buy more graham crackers because of these videos?

But we can spell this out a little more. The basic thinking required is “counterfactual”. In other words, “if we hadn’t run this ad, would people have bought more/less/the same”? That requires having a handle on the various factors that contribute purchases to can see how much has to do with the ad. So measuring an ad’s effectiveness has a lot to do with measuring everything else going on. These factors are rather proprietary and because of the always-on consumer, “attribution” (which event led a consumer to actually buy something) is pretty tricky.

Because attribution is complicated, a lot of marketing departments use proxies, for example “brand awareness”. You can’t buy a product you’ve never heard about. An ad that gets people to learn about or remember a product is seen as a crucial step. It’s measurable by surveying people or by seeing how mentions in social media change. Of course, if everyone talking about your product finds it loathsome, you presume that sales will be negatively impacted. So some kind of sentiment analysis is usually necessary.

You can get fancier and detect intent-to-buy messages and track how those rates change. There are a lot of other Key Performance Indicators that marketing departments use. Rather than insist upon a single correct measure, I’ll suggest that the key is having measures that actually measure what you think you’re measuring. If you think you’re measuring sentiment but your accuracy is terrible, you’re not really measuring sentiment. If you’re only paying attention to English, you’re not really treating your brand as a global brand (English-only is even a problem for American brands: English isn’t the only language of the heart).

What’s a brand?

A brand is a relationship between a company and its customers. From the company’s side, the brand is promising specific benefits and value: “we’ll protect you,” “we’ll make new things possible”, “we’ll keep you healthy”, “we’ll show you a good time”.

A company that has a brand relationship with a consumer means that the consumer has some kind of emotional investment. If the consumer believes the company is faring well, they’ll have positive feelings; if the consumer believes the company is having troubles, they’ll feel negative emotions. Giving people the opportunity to care is part of creating a relationship. And caring is not always just joy-when-someone-else-is-joyful.

People who have seen Honey Maid’s ads understand that there are those who will be upset about showing a family made up of two dads. They know Honey Maid has taken a position. The ad campaign gives the opportunity to solidify a relationship with these people.

The other part of a relationship is that it’s mutual. You’re not in a relationship if it’s one-sided. So a company only has a brand if they are valued by consumers and if the company values its consumers. Another wrinkle: it’s not a relationship if either side just sees the other as “a means to an end”. That is to say, there has to be respect. When people talk about brands needing to stand for something, this is what they’re talking about. 

It’s not straight-forward to quantify taking a stand. Measuring how many more discussions happen after a company Takes-a-Position is a good first pass: a dramatic increase in mentions indicates that the company has hit upon something. But this could just be “We’re giving away a free car with every retweet!”.

A principle is only a principle if it costs you something. For that reason, taking a stand means attracting not just more mentions, but mentions that attract very-positive and very-negative. Taking a position can increase respect exactly because people believe you are willing to pay a price for a principle. From a financial perspective, a company hopes that the very-positive is made up of more consumers/possible consumers than the very-negative. But taking a position means taking a risk. If everyone knew the outcome beforehand, it wouldn’t really be a matter of Taking-a-Position.

If you’re actually Taking-a-Position, of course, you’re not doing something merely to make money. That means another measure of effectiveness is going to be whether you actually change the discourse around some topic. In a moment, I’ll talk about how the meaning of wholesome has been shifting but first, let’s look at what’s going on with Honey Maid.

What’s happening with Honey Maid

Honey Maid’s follow-up campaign (spoiler alert) mentions that they got ten times as many supportive messages and critical messages. How do things currently stand three weeks later?

Recent social media posts are overwhelmingly positive about Honey Maid (I’m reporting results for a bunch of different spellings of the brand though there are surprisingly few “Honey Made” misspells). About 43% of Honey Maid mentions are about the commercials. And of these about 89% of them are positive. The items that aren’t positive are largely neutral/newsy in tone.

There are very few negative items. The haters have essentially moved on, while supporters continue to circulate the positive message. Mostly people are sharing the video and expressing support. About 7% of positive mentions right now talk about it in terms of eating more Honey Maid—whether this is good really depends on what the typical response to ads is (both for Honey Maid and their competitors).

A history of wholesomeness

The main line in the original commercial is:

“No matter how things change, what makes us wholesome never will. Honey Maid. Everyday wholesome snacks for every wholesome family. This is wholesome.”

Honey Maid’s campaigns look likely to be effective from a marketing standpoint (we need to add some more variables to really show this). Is it effective in doing something about the discourse around wholesomeness? As with branding, we need to understand the history to understand change. Without a historical perspective, there’s really no way to answer questions of effectiveness.

The first uses of wholesome tended to be about ‘virtuous teachings’. In Wycliffe’s Bible way back in 1382,

The..holsum wordis of oure Lord Jhesu Crist. (1 Timothy 6:3)

(Modern versions treat wordis as ‘words’, ‘teachings’, or ‘instructions’.)

In other words, religious communities have been using wholesome as part of their discourse for hundreds of years. That’s what’s behind their notion that Honey Maid was trying to redefine wholesome (and family). But of course no one really owns the definitions of words and it is the nature of words to shift over time.

Importantly, the religious meaning really hasn’t been the single or primary meaning for most of the history of the word. One of the major uses of wholesome is about food/medicine—Chaucer talked about holsome herbes back in 1372. In America, the early 1800s were especially a hay-day for talk about wholesome foods. You see an uptake in talking about wholesome recreation/activities in the 1900s and we’ll see this in the contemporary social media, too.


Note that across web pages in countries where English is used, the virtue-related meaning isn’t very prevalent. The one exception is Sri Lanka, where wholesome is much more popular than anywhere else. In Sri Lanka, it is usually used as a translation for the Buddhist concept of kusala.

Okay, in a moment, we’ll trace what’s happening today in social media, but let’s go in for a little etymology. The whole part started out in English meaning ‘healthy’ in the sense of ‘uninjured’—originally you could only talk about people and animals being whole. The -some suffix has to do with turning other words into adjectives. Digression!


Really old forms:

  • friðsum (peaceful)
  • genyhtsum (abundant)
  • ánsum (whole)
  • langsum (lasting)
  • hýrsum, héarsum (obedient)
  • wlatsome (detestable)

That last one isn’t quite as old as the others—it dates back to the 1300’s when wlat meant ‘nausea’. Basically this is me trying to jump start wlatsome. As in, “Don’t click on this link about the wlatsome Kevin Swanson.”

Things we’ve kept on since really early English:

  • winsome
  • cumbersome
  • fulsome
  • handsome
  • loathsome
  • buxom (it’s hiding in the x!)

And from the 16th century, we get awesome and quarrelsome. After that we get adventuresomebothersomefearsome, and lonesome.

Wholesome and social media

Right now, a lot of the mentions of wholesome are for Wholesome Radio (36% of mentions of wholesome are in their tweets). Let’s remove these and the spam (about 11% of the data).

  • Food: 23% (but mostly not about Honey Maid)
  • Humans: 23% (and how they can/should live; church-related mentions are prominent)
  • Entertainment: 13% (movies, TV)

Now let’s compare this to 2011 uses:

  • Humans: 32%
  • Entertainment: 12%
  • Food: 9%

The data sets are not perfectly equivalent—the 2011 sample focuses on American English users who use social media conversationally, so the differences could be time or they could be that people who tend to be broadcasters/curators are more likely to talk about (wholesome) foods than people who mostly use social media to converse.

Complicated meanings

Now for something that cuts across categories: jokes, contrasts and irony. About 17% of the current mentions of wholesome are not, strictly speaking, about wholesomeness:

  • Ironic:
    • Thank you, Victoria’s Secret, for ruining what would otherwise be a wholesome picture. (Snooort!) #WhatIsHerSecret
    • Like a good wholesome strip club would put me in the most perfect of places.
  • Not-exactly-ironic:
    • Scary movie is over and to calm down we are watching something wholesome like X-Files season 6.
    • Why would anyone “unfollow” me? Got something against wholesome? Got me this far so buggar off! Golly. I feel so dirty now.
  • Contrastive:
    • @User I can see Rene doing it now! My DMs are all wholesome. Except you 😛
    • After wholesome scripts that I’ve written for school and other projects, I just can’t believe I’m writing these kind of lines. Hahaha!

In the 2011 data, the percentage is more like 46%. Again, the change may not be that we’ve gotten less ironic but that intensely-conversational social media users are simply more ironic/contrastive.

Regardless, the point is that modern discourse about wholesome has a very strong thread that plays with the concept instead of taking it at face value.

Metaphoric s’mores conclusion

S’mores (short for some more) used to be called heavenly crisps. The recipe is simple: Graham crackers give structure to an interior of chocolate and gooey marshmallow. Structure and goo. That’s basically meaning.

The structure of our languages and our social lives *seems* to come from “on high”…but really that structure is built out of individual actions. This is a squooshy, sticky notion sometimes called duality: your choices are defined by structures outside of you, but those big stiff-seeming structures only exist because of a billion individual choices.

The meanings of wholesome in the present moment come from a history of people using it day-by-day, year-by-year. The future of wholesome is the same. Patrolling word use is an attempt at language control in order to control thoughts and ideas. Basically, it doesn’t work. There’s structure around the gooeyness but think of what happens when you press too firmly on it. Is a melted marshmallow well-behaved? A melted marshmallow is not well-behaved.

The reason you want to structure unstructured text is because you want to understand patterns. Patterns are useful because they describe what is and help predict what might come. And while insisting on control is a losing proposition, shaping is possible. Our individual choices reflect what is. And they are part of making it so.

Earlier I defined brands as a kind of relationship. Relationships also involve historical patterns of actions and beliefs. But more than that, they involve a kind of meta-approval: a kind of normative desire that says, “Yeah, I don’t just have a history of these actions and beliefs—I believe in them.” We have all sorts of habits and beliefs about various people and organizations in our lives, but the real relationships are the ones we would endorse.

Cultural keywords are disputed terms. By staking a claim about the environment, privacy, family, freedom and the like, companies position themselves. Consumers and potential consumers will align or depart, but it is the very act of staking a claim that makes it possible to have meaningful relationships. A relationship that you could literally have with anyone is not really a relationship at all. Floating is space, unattached can save you the pain of rejection. And you can be well-regarded from afar. But relationships risk, require, and reward more.

– Tyler Schnoebelen (@TSchnoebelen)



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