A Case Study in Ambiguity, Assumption, and Intertextuality:
An Orange Juice Label
by Christopher Orson Spencer
One facet of Herbert von Hundstein's theory of universality is that
all components of culture, from obvious propaganda campaigns to written
notes exchanged on refrigerator doors, are meaningful and representative
of society as a whole. Von Hundstein writes in Kultur ist Alle; Alle
The most mundane may also be the most significant, for is
our culture any less forgotten in the private conversations of two
lovers? Culture does not exist in a vacuum: it permeates all like
oxygen, and for that reason anything in existence is a product of
its culture. (34)
Therefore, a parking ticket, office memo, and orange juice packaging
are all representations of culture. It is the orange juice label that
concerns us here, and its promotion of ambiguity, assumptions of the
audience's supineness, and reliance on other texts.
The word "minute" has multiple meanings, as does "maid,"
and thus "minute maid" is infinitely problematic. Are we to
assume that the "maid," an unmarried girl or woman, is only
a maid for a minute? After those sixty seconds, is her virginity gone?
If this is the intended reading, being the primary denotations for both
words, then should this company really be selling orange juice and not
sex toys? Examining the phrase "minute maid" from a grammatical
viewpoint, we could easily extrapolate that "minute" here
serves as an adjective, modifying "maid," and thus means "a
very small" maid. Perhaps virgin dwarfs create orange juice. The
company presumes to convey a quickness created through the additional
services of an assistant, a maid making a laborious process go by in
a minute; however, that reading is only one of many possible.
During the 2000 presidential election in the United States, much hoopla
was made about "fuzzy math." Here too, on the orange juice,
can examples of fuzzy math be found. Under nutrition facts, we learn
that there are two servings of 240 milliliters; yet only 473 milliliters
are contained within the bottle, according to a different panel. While
obviously totals have been changed due to rounding, one must ask what
else has been changed in order to make nice whole numbers for the public.
The ambiguity of how much liquid is actually contained within the bottle
may not matter to most, but the lack of precision is discombobulating.
A simple +/- (plus or minus) 7 milliliters would do the trick.
The assumption that Americans do not care about the metric system has
been with us for decades, and it still continues. The preciseness of
measurement is of no concern to the common man, the label seems to cry,
because a serving size is eight fluid ounces, and there are sixteen
fluid ounces. If the milliliters are too complicated, as everyone assumes
the metric system must be for Americans, just use the fluid ounce measurement.
With its use of parentheses to isolate metric measurements in the nutrition
facts, the orange juice label, like most of American society, effectively
discredits and whispers the existence of alternative forms of measurement.
Most foodstuffs are required by law to include nutritional information,
and for that reason, the maker of this orange juice assumes some familiarity
with reading said labels. Abbreviations such as "fat cal, sat fat,
[and] cholest" are used without explanation: readers familiar with
nutritional information automatically interpret those items as fat calories,
saturated fats, and cholesterol. "Carb" means carbohydrates,
yet can a newcomer to the land of nutritional facts ascertain as much
without prior experience of reading labels? Clearly a particular audience
is intended: only those who regularly read nutritional information need
attempt to interpret this label. A certain amount of intertextuality
exists, assuming readers are familiar with unexplained abbreviations.
Not only are drinkers of this beverage assumed to be previous partakers
of labels, but they must be active participants in the process of drinking
as well. They must "shake well before enjoying." It is unknown
what they must shake: must they shake themselves, the bottle, the machine
that dispenses the bottle, or everything? Not only must the one who
will drink the beverage "shake well," but he or she must also
"enjoy" the drink. This leads to many unanswerable questions.
If I shake poorly, will my enjoyment be hampered? What happens if I
shake well, but do not enjoy the drink? Sticklers will also point out
that it is not clear what is to be enjoyed either: perhaps the enjoyment
stems from the shaking of oneself and is completely unrelated to the
"Refrigerate after opening" is another problematic command.
Refrigerate what after opening what? Must we refrigerate simply the
unused portion of orange juice after opening the bottle? Must we refrigerate
the bottle itself even if we have "enjoyed" all the juice
within? This also leads to more complicated questions: at what temperature
must I refrigerate the unused portion (if indeed, that is what is meant)?
Users might be tempted to call "consumer information," yet
it is unclear how information about consumers would be helpful in determining
what to refrigerate and at what temperature.
Although "pasteurized" and "all natural" appear
on the label, it is highly unlikely that the label itself is all natural
or pasteurized. Indeed, with the plasticine properties of the label,
it is impossible for the label to be all natural. Therefore, those two
descriptors must refer to the contents of the bottle (since the bottle
itself is also clearly a plastic object and thus "unnatural"),
although this distinction is not completely obvious.
A familiarity with religion is necessary to understand one more component
of the orange juice label: the letter K in a triangle signifies that
the juice is kosher. A large number of Gentiles are clueless regarding
the intricacies of maintaining a kosher diet, and many more would not
know what a triangle around a K means. Thus some familiarity with Jewish
tradition and teaching is necessary to grasp all dimensions of the orange
juice label experience.
There is yet to be determined an acceptable level of ambiguity for
publicly-accessible works, although some theorists are actively attempting
to set such standards. Eirik and Bjorn Norstrand of Oslo have published
papers documenting their research into Norwegian candy wrappers and
intended audience with an eye towards developing national guidelines
for clarity in communication. Beyond the Food and Drug Administration's
demands and requirements for nutritional information, very little will
cause orange juice labels to be less ambiguous, assumptive, and intertextual
in the future.
Let us not oversimplify and assume that one orange juice label does
not matter, that the simple commands "shake well before enjoying"
simply fall on blind ears and deaf ears. As von Hundstein states, this
orange juice label contains a microcosm of society: within its directives
lie the problems and successes of society. The orange juice label thus
serves as a litmus test of American culture in general, and we can determine
that American culture requires a fairly informed populace used to interpreting
assumptions and intertextuality to avoid problematic ambiguity.
Minute Maid. "Orange Juice Label." Packaging on product
purchased 27 Apr. 2001.
Von Hundstein, Herbert. Kultur ist Alle: Alle ist Kultur.
Trans. Gary Boyle. Dresden: U of Dresden P, 1994.