Digital Magazine

A new book on packaging is recommended reading

In the average half-hour trip to the supermarket, 30,000 products vie for the shopper's attention. Those that get noticed have only a sixth of a second to make their sales pitch. Today's marketers know they have to trigger desire instantly.

A recently published book by Thomas Hine, entitled The Total Package (Little, Brown and Co., New York), is a delightful and erudite exploration into the way modern packages play on our deepest fears and desires to sell us germ-killing soap or high-profile vodka.

It was written not by a packaging professional but by an experienced journalist, giving the pro a view into an industry that is often not understood by outsiders.

In just over 250 pages Hine goes from Caanitee jars to the ubiquitous CD "jewel box." Here's how he discusses the introduction of cellophane and its impact on the development of modern packaging technology:

"The secret was cellophane, a wood-based product that was a sort of chemical cousin to rayon. It had been invented in 1911 by a Swiss chemist in an unsuccessful effort to find a coating that would keep tablecloths from becoming stained, and it was first manufactured in France in 1913. DuPont licensed that patent in 1923 and began producing it the following year.

"In 1927 DuPont made a crucial improvement of the material when it developed moisture-proof cellophane, allowing the material to be used as a protective covering for food. This clear, flimsy product remained close to invisible, however, until a few years later when DuPont began a pioneering marketing campaign to make what had been a little-known component into a household word. The company's success in creating a celebrity substance was affirmed when, in his 1934 song 'You're the Top,' Cole Porter climaxed a list of superlatives with the accolade, 'You're cellophane.'

"In a sense, the popularization of cellophane was analogous to the introduction of the machine-made paper bag more than 60 years before. Like the paper bag, cellophane was often a competitor to packaging, because it allowed individual merchants to pack unbranded products in an attractive way. DuPont's promotions showed retail displays featuring cellophane containers filled with macaroni, nuts, beans, spices, vegetables, and countless other commodities. Many of these products had long been marketed in distinctive packages."

Discussing aseptic packaging and the subsequent market failure of long-life milk, Hine notes that perhaps part of the product's failure has been that it was introduced at the world's fair in Knoxville and evoked little response there. He seems to indicate that a major effort on the part of Tetra-Pak would have been preferable.

On the environment, the DSD scheme devised by Klaus Topfer in Germany is candidly discussed. Hine says that even if the system works in Germany and the Netherlands, there is no guarantee it will work in the less cohesive and cooperative environment of the US.

The treatment of source reduction is particularly interesting. Source reduction has a powerful group of allies today, but, says Hine, it is in a sense, one of the constant themes of the entire history of packaging. Cans, for example, have evolved from iron-walled barrels, opened with hammer and chisel, to very thin-walled membranes that, in some cases, hold their shape only because of the pressure of what's inside.

But Hine draws a questionable conclusion about the actual acceptance of source-reduced refill packaging. He reports that the "refill concept has been understood and accepted by consumers." Perhaps in some selected areas this is true. However, for the mainstream, refillability has failed miserably in the US. The busy American simply does not want to bother with the concept.

The Total Package contains a superb bibliography that effectively traces the evolution of packaging technology. Hine notes his sources and comments on their relative value in the text.

I found the book somewhat overboard as to the role of package design in the total package development process, and packaging-material innovations are not comprehensively discussed. However, as an insight into an industry that we hopefully make a buck in, it's a superb book and well worth its $24.95 cover price.

Stanley Sacharow has been in the flexible packaging industry for almost 35 years. His company, The Packaging Group, is an organizer of targeted conferences and a consultant to the international packaging/converting industry.

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