Bob Martin’s Supplement Boxby Kimon de Greef / 30.04.2013
Wandering around Observatory Spar last week I stumbled across two curious boxes of supplements. It was after 7pm and the rush hour crush had subsided. The neon-lit aisles were empty and the shelves were fractionally barer than usual, having not yet been restocked from the storeroom out back. It was quiet the way a lecture theatre feels the minute after everybody walks out, leaving faint imprints of voices and movement behind in the room.
A shrunken man in an olive raincoat staggered past in the fruit juice section, where I was studiously comparing prices and ingredients. His eyes slid over me and he pulled a tight smile.
“Want to know where the real juice is?” he asked in a whisper. “That shit isn’t even organic.”
Then he clapped his hands and strode purposefully towards the yoghurt. I selected an overpriced bottle of pulped mango and bade him farewell.
Without quite knowing how I got there I was standing in front of the pet food shelf, reading lists of additives. I don’t own a pet; I was merely doing this out of curiosity. Engaging with labels is occasionally a rewarding and informative exercise for me, but it can also waste time and become obsessive. I had friends to meet and music to organize, and really had no business indulging this peculiar habit.
But the process had begun and stopping was unthinkable. Like a slumbering beast my appetite for weird information had been awoken, and I had no choice but to surrender to its whims.
I found myself crouched low in front of an open box of hooves. They smelled meaty; what dog wouldn’t want to chew on a hoof? I ran my finger along a roughly textured rim and wondered: Where do these hooves come from? Are they offcuts from processing factories? What species of animal leg were they once attached to?
There are many interesting questions to ask about hooves but there were no labels to read and I was in a label groove, so I abandoned the box and moved across to Supplements. Then I discovered Bob Martin Condition Tablets and the evening took on a stranger flavour.
“Even your best companion can have off days like yourself,” the packaging explained. “One Bob Martin Condition Tablet every day will help your best friend live a fit, healthy life.” The smiling, attentive spaniel on the flipside was a picture of vitality and unconditional love. I read on.
“These tablets may help to prevent such disorders as lack of appetite, listlessness, loose coat, excessive scratching and many skin disorders.”
The nutritional information panel listed Vitamins A, B, D and E and a bit of calcium. I’d expected something other than an ordinary multivitamin, seeing as the product was marketed specifically for dogs… but on the other hand the pills contained no Vitamin C whatsoever, suggesting someone at Bob Martin had done their homework.
Like all other mammals — humans, most primates, bats, capybaras and guinea pigs excluded — dogs produce their own Vitamin C, and don’t need to top up from the food they eat.
I was feeling quietly ambivalent until I saw the cat tablets, but then the whole thing descended into farce.
“Bob Martin Condition Tablets contain vitamins and minerals for proper nutrition of cats and kittens leading domesticated lives,” I read. “One Bob Martin Condition Tablet a day will help your pet leave a fit, healthy life.”
“These tablets may help to prevent such disorders as listlessness, loss of appetite, scratching and loose fur.”
I became aware of a creeping sense of déjà vu. At precisely that moment the man in the greasy jacket returned to leer at me, and I spun to meet his gaze. His eyeballs were rotating slowly in his skull.
“Take heed, brother,” he rasped. He coughed with his lips open and shuffled away.
I snatched up the first box again and frantically began comparing sentences. Barring a few minor editorial tweaks the two products seemed to be offering exactly the same thing! I turned to the nutritional information panels and held them side-by-side. This was the litmus test. I had to squint to read the tiny lettering —–
No difference, not even to the milligram. Thiamine (Vitamin B1): 0.25 mg / Riboflavin (Vitamin B2): 0.45 mg / Pyridoxine (Vitamin B6): 0.12 mg… Row by row of perfectly matching pairs right down to “Calcium: 1.32 mg” at the bottom.
I placed the boxes back down. At the end of the aisle a security guard in a padded jacket was watching me. I waved and he moved out of sight. My phone buzzed in my pocket and I moved to answer it but missed the call. It was 7.45 PM.
What kind of company rebrands identical tablets for different pets? Why not just sell them as an honest all-in-one tonic? A quick online check this morning confirmed my suspicion that cats and dogs have distinct vitamin and mineral requirements, but that the concentrations offered by the Condition Tablets represent a kind of vague compromise between the two. Again, it’s clear Bob Martin have done some research.
What finishes me is that the wording of the blurbs has been subtly tailored for different target markets. The dog pills are all about best friends and companionship; the cat version is offish and reserved. The list of ailments has even been juggled to give the impression that the tablets offer different things, for example by substituting the word “fur” for “coat”.
But at the end of the day you could feed a cat pill to your dog (or vice versa) and the effect would be exactly the same. And even though it’s likely there is some small benefit to supplementing your pet’s diet with a multivitamin — especially if you haven’t the money for expensive “super premium” brands that contain all the right stuff anyway — there’s something disturbing about being intentionally misled by the packaging.
It goes deeper than that. To a certain degree, all advertising is premised on deception: to sell somebody something you must first fool them into thinking they need it. There’s a more sinister edge, however, when the language of science — diet, vitamins, disorders — gets co-opted into meeting these ends. The average pet owner shopping at Spar has no clue how much Pantothenic Acid their high-pitched Yorkshire Terrier a) needs and b) currently ingests … But because they’ve been bombarded with the Gospel of Vitamins and Minerals from every possible angle—breakfast cereal, skin cream, shampoo, flavoured water—they make the logical decision and lob a box of the good stuff into their trolley on the way to the till. They return home, smuggle a tablet down their beloved companion’s throat in a small block of cheese, and sink into the couch feeling virtuous and content. Quietly a new superstition has taken hold—and somewhere, Bob Martin is smiling.
I purchased two boxes to investigate further and left the store. It had grown dark outside. As I crouched to unlock my bicycle chain the shrunken man appeared again.
“Everybody calls me insane around here,” he whispered. “But it’s you lot who are all fucking mad.”