Like many people who at one point said something profound, Marshall McLuhan’s posthumous existence nowadays rarely ventures beyond the singular nature of one quotation: “The medium is the message.”
McLuhan was mostly referring to how the basic nature of a medium is more important than the what the medium is saying: The way a news report functions tells us much more than the actual news report itself – if we pay attention to it.
McLuhan published his famous phrase in 1964, four years after another seminal event in history: the introduction of Opal Fruits, the fruit-flavored confections known stateside as Starburst.
McLuhan wasn’t at all thinking about Starburst when he was writing about how television and newspapers shape our consciouness. Still, his medium = message hypothesis has direct and potentially edifying applications to not only the internal structure of modern confectionaries, but to modern life as well.
The gist: similar to the way a medium organizes its message, the manner in which a package of Starburst is organized has profound effects on how it is experienced, and it is only by altering the formula that those effects become apparent.
A pack of 2.07 OZ Starburst Original Fruit Chews features four naturally-and-artifically-flavored varieties: Cherry, orange, strawberry and lemon. The package’s twelve pieces are arranged in identical clusters of four, the first of which changes depending on which side you start eating from. From the right, the first color is orange, followed by yellow, pink and red. Red begins the package from the left side, inverting the series.
For most consumers of Starburst there exists a hierarchy of flavor preference. Red and pink tend to vie for the top position, with yellow and orange sharing similar places towards the bottom. Thus, eating a pack of Starburst is also an experience in anticipation and disappointment. Though the package does have a definite organizing principle, it is not one consciously considered by most consumers as they reach for the next candy embedded in the tube,
Mamba, a German-made candy, shares a significant number of similarities with Starburst – general taste, texture, etc – with one main exception: the two candies are organized in entirely disparate fashions. Whereas Starbust candies are organized in DNA-like series, the candies in a package of Mamba are grouped by placing each individual flavor within its own, self-enclosed package. Three packages of six, each representing one of a possible four flavors (lemon, strawberry, raspberry, orange) are placed side by side, giving each package of Mamba eighteen individual candies, six more than Starburst.
But consider what happens when we take the organizing principle of Mamba and apply it to Starburst. If we simply reorder each of the candies so that the four flavors are grouped together (pictured) we more or less have the same product – at least on one level. In reality, however, once we alter the organizing formula of the package, we subvert the design of how the candy was meant to be consumed. Suddenly, instead of a package built on unconscious anticipation and disappointment, we have a package that offers the certain regularity of knowing exactly which flavor comes next.
The organizing principles of Starburst share significant congruitity with how we (would like to) live. Embedded in Starburst is regularity, though of a slightly subdued kind. It’s not completely unsystematic, like a package of Skittles, but rather fainltly structured within its own kingdom of rules. It’s sustained without being boring, and variable without disrupting its own natural internal organization. A pack of Starburst is, at its very core, the well-lived life: Sweet, simple, and, above all, something best experienced with friends.