Earlier this week I clicked play on a new series called ‘Welcome to Flatch’, a mockumentary-style sitcom – based on the BBC series ‘This Country’ – about the eccentric residents of a small town in the Midwest. . The show is fine (the UK version is better), but one line in particular really stuck with me.
Seann William Scott plays Father Scott, a minister who had a short stint in his youth as a member of A-Men, a Christian boy band that was “very popular in Germany”. Eventually, Father Scott decided to go solo in hopes – as he put it – of being bigger than Cosmopolitan yogurt.
I slammed the “pause” button and immediately fell down a food story rabbit hole. “I can’t stop thinking about Cosmo’s first steps, ill-fated foray into yogurt,” I texted my partner. He simply answered with a question mark. Let me explain.
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In 1999, Cosmopolitan – which was known for appealing to “fun, fearless women,” as editor-in-chief Helen Gurley Brown would have it – was at a crossroads. A new millennium was fast approaching, and after serving as editor for nearly four decades, Brown had recently been quietly let go of her post. The magazine’s editor felt she was potentially out of touch with what young women wanted.
What did Cosmopolitan’s new guard think women wanted? Yogurt, apparently.
That year, the magazine partnered with MD Foods to launch a low-fat yogurt line, as well as a low-fat soft cheese. According to Marketing Week, “the products were intended to expand the Cosmopolitan brand into the health food business” (which is probably more accurately described as the “health food” business, in this case).
Dieting had long been a guideline of the Cosmo ethos, pioneered by Brown herself. As she once wrote:
If my weight is okay, dinner for me might be muesli with chopped prunes, dried apricots, six unsalted almonds, a dusting of Equal, and a cup of whole milk. Delicious! If you’re fighting weight, go back to tuna salad with a slice of seven-grain toast and half a tablespoon of diet margarine. Dessert every night is this whole packet of sugar-free diet Jell-O in a dish just for me – one envelope wouldn’t fit four as the instructions suggest – with a dollop of peach, lemon, strawberry or any Dannon light yogurt on top. Fifty cals – heaven! – I’m still wild
From now on, it is not inconceivable that a brand unknown for its culinary achievements will make an incursion into the food industry. Patagonia, for example, launched “Patagonia Provisions”, a line of durable pantry items.
“What does an outdoor clothing company do to sell food?” wrote Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard in a 2020 blog post. “I was asked a similar question in 1968 when we were forging new tools for mountaineering, and suddenly we started selling shorts, shirts and pants. Skepticism seems to increase any time a company refuses to ‘stay in its lane’, but as an entrepreneur, I see business opportunities everywhere.”
For Patagonia, the adventure seems to be bearing fruit; it’s not unthinkable that you’ll want to load up your Patagonia backpack with Patagonia smoked deer ties and energizing cocoa and goji snacks for your next hike. In the case of Cosmopolitan, the leap was a little more difficult to cross: You’ve read our slimming magazine, so maybe you’d like to eat our low-fat yogurt too?
That didn’t stop Cosmopolitan from trying to inspire this leap, however.
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It should be noted that at this time Cosmopolitan was trying to lay the groundwork for a major expansion. As Campaign, a trade publication focused on marketing and advertising, reported in 2001, “women’s brilliance Cosmopolitan will launch a series of branded ‘lifestyle centers’ which will offer advice on exercise, nutrition and emotional problems for young women”. A year earlier, Cosmopolitan unveiled plans for a chain of “branded” cafes.
These businesses were struggling to get off the ground, just like yogurt was struggling to get off the shelves. Although they were advertised as “sophisticated” (which also meant they cost more than competitors), grocery shoppers didn’t seem interested in the branded product.
By now, a Google search of the phrase “cosmopolitan yogurt” – after scrolling through a page or two of cocktail-inspired treats – will bring up a bunch of presentations from business schools on the importance of understanding your target audience through extensive market research.
With the rabbit hole fully explored, I was able to return to my show with a heightened appreciation for whoever on the “Welcome to Flatch” writing team had inserted that one-line gem into the script.
This essay originally appeared in Salon Food’s weekly newsletter, The Bite. Subscribe here to receive early and exclusive recipes, tutorials and deep dives into food history like this.
Interested in reading more stories from the Salon Food Archive that address food culture, gender, and weird corporate forays into the food industry? Check out this list:
1 Diners, guys and diets
The women had Cosmopolitan yogurt, the men had yogurt that *checked the ratings* was served in plastic pots engraved with six-pack abs. It’s just one of the almost comical examples of the confluence of food and gender found in researcher and writer Dr. Emily Contois’ book, “Diners, Dudes and Diets.” In my interview with Contois, we specifically talked about yogurt.
“If you get a yogurt marketed for women, it just crumbles in your hand,” she said. “But then I wrote about the Dannon Oikos Triple Zero. It’s such a heavier weight. Then there was the Power Yogurt that had abs literally chiseled on every cup.”
She continued, “So it starts there, but it also shows in the flavor names. They’re often simpler and more straightforward when aimed at a male audience. For women, they’re often a substitute for desert, no It’s key lime pie, instead of just a lime.For men, it’s a post-workout snack they’ve recoded.
2 A mother, a daughter and a pot of cabbage soup
“I can’t remember the first time we tried the diet together, but I was probably 15 or 16,” Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams wrote. “I clearly remember the piece of paper though; a photocopy so many generations from its original that the letters were big and blurry. My mum was probably at the start of it all then, all the issues I still don’t understand. harder for her to maintain the whippet physique that had become part of her identity.”
It’s a hard and touching essay about mothers and daughters and the things we share – neuroses, experiences or, in this case, a disgusting diet of cabbage soup.
3 First Taco Bell Jalapeño Noir, now Old Bay Vodka
As far as brands branching out, I’ve been following closely the trend of fast food giants and other big food companies dipping their toes into the world of what I’ve heard called “stunt minds”. “. Arby had Curly Fry Vodka, Taco Bell brought out a wine. . . and now Old Bay is also getting into the vodka game.