So much choice, so little time


It all started with a simple question. Uncle Nunzi was reading Dear Abby. A reader asked, “Is it okay if I use body lotion on my face?” Uncle turned to me after reading the question out loud (he has an annoying habit of reading the entire newspaper to me before I’ve had the chance to read it myself). “In my day, we used soap for all over the body.” “Yes,” I replied, “and you used the same bar of soap to wash the dishes, too.” In truth, Uncle had a point.

One of my many guilty pleasures is Kiehl’s products. Like many other brands of skin care and bath products, Kiehl’s makes separate bath and shower products for the face, the body and face, and the hair. Kiehl’s recently discovered that it could make a product that actually could be used for the face, body, AND hair just like Uncle’s long-time-ago bar of soap. Imagine what progress brings!

I’ve often wondered, just like the letter writer in Dear Abby, just what would happen if I used foot lotion on my face. Calluses on my nose? We enjoy the option of choosing a great variety of products in the United States. Is anyone else out there thinking that maybe we have too many choices?

Take, for instance, that old standby favorite Breyers Vanilla Ice Cream. Breyers’ slogan for its vanilla ice cream was- “Look for the specks of real vanilla bean.” I spent hours staring at my ice cream when I was a kid searching for those little specks. Well, not actually, because the ice cream would’ve melted. But you get the idea. I always found my search quite rewarding when I found those little specks. My mother, ever the suspicious one, always felt the specks were really evidence of a dirt problem. If she could’ve vacuumed the ice cream, she would have. Henry Breyer, the son of founder William Breyer and the one responsible for incorporating the business in 1908, went to his great reward a long time ago (probably somewhere near the Big Dipper). Guys in suits have taken over. Today, Breyers markets four types of vanilla ice cream. Vanilla ice cream, that essence of simplicity, is no longer just a search for real specks of vanilla bean (although one can still look for them if so inclined).

If you’re shopping for Breyers Vanilla ice cream these days, you’re forced to choose between Natural Vanilla (which leaves shoppers to wonder if the other types are “unnatural vanilla”), French Vanilla (which isn’t really French at all in origin), Homemade Vanilla (which, strictly speaking, isn’t really “homemade” since this variety, as well as all the others, is presumably made in a manufacturing plant, not churned by a relative of Henry Breyers in his or her backyard), and Extra Creamy Vanilla (which makes you wonder why they couldn’t make the other three types extra creamy and saved us one fewer variety of vanilla ice cream). I’ve spent more time trying to figure out what type of vanilla ice cream I should purchase than I ever did searching for the specks of real vanilla bean.

If you think it’s confusing buying ice cream or figuring out which part of your body you can wash or apply lotion to with which type of product, consider the once-simple, but now potentially stupefying, process of buying toothpaste. Remember when schools used to bring a dental hygienist into the classroom to instruct students on how to brush their teeth? The hygienist, always a perky, pretty lady with sparkling teeth (and without any benefit of any whitening products back then) used to tell us that we didn’t even have to use toothpaste to clean our teeth so long as we used the correct brushing motion. You could simply use salt water instead of toothpaste (this was before the authorities decided to put fluoride in our water supply and spark all kinds of conspiracy theories). Chances are if a school brought in anyone today to talk to pupils about taking care of their teeth, it would be the Director of Marketing.

In his research, your columnist found that Colgate, for example, has two categories of toothpaste–Total and Regular or, as I would call the latter, Incomplete. I found a total (no pun intended) of seven types of toothpaste under both categories. In case you’re interested, here they are: Daily Repair (which sounds as if you need a construction company rather than a toothpaste); Teeth Whitening; Advanced Teeth Whitening (for Camel smokers?); Deep Cleansing Silica (comes equipped with a power drill); Bad Breath and Whitening (packaged in a plain wrapper); Clean Mint (as opposed to Dirty Mint?) and Mint Stripe (for preppy types). Note: You must see your dentist for advice on which type to use. I clogged a supermarket aisle for 90 minutes looking for a toothpaste that accomplishes all of the above.

Uncle blames Baskin-Robbins for the proliferation of types and flavors of everything on supermarket shelves…from baked beans to coffee. Baskin-Robbins seemingly got into a “war” with Howard Johnson’s over which brand could market more flavors. The latter no longer markets ice cream. It surrendered much like the Soviet Union in the arms race during the Reagan Years. Unlike the Soviet Union, Howard Johnson’s is still in business with its chain of motels.

A cautionary tale for Putin. ■