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5 December, 2003

The price of fish

Every couple of years, the 'popular media' run a feature mocking celebrities and politicians for being out of touch; for not knowing the price of 'everyday' food items.  Yet the whole exercise is flawed.  Is it really surprising that the Prime Minister doesn't do his own groceries shopping?

There's also no allowance for personal taste or circumstances - a lactose-intolerant person would never buy milk, and many just don't like tomato soup. Personally, I don't eat eggs at all (as an ingredient already in a cake, yes, but as a fried, boiled, poached or scrambled egg, never), so couldn't even guess at the retail price. Likewise, I haven't bought a standard, mass-produced, sliced white loaf of bread for well over a decade; I tend to buy six-packs of individual bread rolls, and on the rare occasions I buy a loaf, it's fresh and unsliced, so I presume the price is rather different to a newspaper's definition of a 'standard' price.

What about those who do their shopping on a weekly basis, at a supermarket? After a short while, the price of individual items is forgotten within an overall bill at the checkout. I know that I don't routinely read the price on the shelf for the most fundamental items; I need milk, I put it in my basket. Milk is milk; I drink the full fat variety, and buy it in 4-pint containers. There's no price comparison to be done, so I just check the 'use by' date, not the price. I drink Coke (not Pepsi), but buy it in packs of 24 cans at the supermarket, so don't have a clue how much an individual can would cost in a convenience store. I don't buy individual items; it's too expensive. I'd say that's routine in modern British society, so the very concept of these price-knowledge articles is outdated.

So why do the media still run such stories? It's easy to dismiss them as vacuous and at best casually entertaining, but I'm more cynical than that - there's an element of social engineering to it. Such stories emphasise , even invent divisions in society: an 'us' who are honest, down-to-earth and know the prices of food basics, and a pretentious 'them' isolated from real life, ignorant of prices. This might also inspire self-criticism in the readers: "I don't know the price of peanut butter either! How awful." (must conform, must conform).
The newspaper obviously includes itself in the 'us', thereby reinforcing its image as 'of the people', establishing a sense of warmth and trustworthiness. Hence, the editorial voice becomes that of a trusted friend, and when the paper reports a more serious news item, the readers are less likely to question the paper's interpretation of the facts quite as much as they ought. Individually, such apparent trivia are no more than that, trivia, but the collective effect lulls a complacent audience into unthinking acceptance of 'the truth' of more serious matters.

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