There are two places on earth where I am at my most confident and content: the first is in front of a keyboard (I’m a writer), and the second? In the kitchen (I’m an amateur, but capable cook.)
The kitchen is where I go when I want to unwind from a long day — a place where I can indulge my love of unique flavors and textures, and create things that nourish my family.
I come from a long line of pretty good cooks, and as such, have utensils in my drawer that belonged to my great grandmother, and recipes pieced together from watching my mother’s flying hands dust a counter with flour to ready it for a lump of dough. I use these tools and this knowledge almost daily.
Outside of our little biscuit dynasty, however, my biggest hero of the apron-clad set is Julia Child.
Her lemony roast chicken is my family’s go-to on winter nights, and her fluffy chocolate mousse remains the pinnacle of my culinary achievements. If she says a certain tool is the right one for the job, that’s the tool I’ll use. If she says I can do it, I’m willing to sharpen my knife and give it a go.
When she passed away, I’m not ashamed to say I shed a few tears — and then immediately went to find her list of ingredients for Coq au Vin.
One of the things I loved most about her was her generosity: of spirit, of time, and of what she possessed. When she donated her home and office to her alma mater, Smith College, and her kitchen (walls and all) to the Smithsonian when she moved to a retirement community in California, it was clear how little she did for money and fame, and how much she did out of her deep love for learning, creating, and teaching.
There was no Julia Child line of gadgets or dishes or pots and pans, a la Martha Stewart or Mario Batali, nor was she a commercial spokesperson, a la Bobby Flay or Tom Colicchio. In fact, she eschewed all those possibilities (and profits) in favor of remaining purely focused on the art of cookery… and representative of no other brand but her own. She believed that these types of endorsements would strain her credibility with her fans — and that credibility was something worth far more to her than a check.
That’s why BHS Home Appliances, the makers of Thermador ovens, in collaboration with California advertising firm, DGWB, has drawn the ire of the Julia Child Foundation by using her image in an ad series. Without permission.
While they insist that no commercial relationship between Thermador and Julia is expressly indicated, their response is disingenuous at best: why make the choice to use her image unless it benefits you in some way? BHS claims they’re simply referencing Julia’s use of Thermador ovens — but given the cultural weight of her brand, there’s no way to get around an implied endorsement. Or at least that’s what the Child Foundation hopes to prove in court. Since DGWB didn’t even attempt to secure rights to her image until after the ad went live, their chances seem solid… even as BHS is counter-suing.
For me, the entire debacle comes down to a fundamental misunderstanding of Julia’s brand.
DGWB and BHS see Julia Child as a famous and beloved culinary figure with fans who take her word as law in the kitchen — and as such, the perfect person to represent their product. If Julia used it, her fans will want to use it. Simple, right?
Au contraire: for Julia’s fans, her steadfast refusal to do product endorsements or commercial partnerships is her brand.
Yes, she sold books. Yes, she was on television. But we love Julia because, though her career supplied her with a very comfortable living, her avoidance of quick-buck opportunities confirmed for us that she wasn’t in it for the money. She simply had a passion for cooking great food, and empowering us to do the same for ourselves. When someone loves something as much as Julia loved her kitchen, that enthusiasm is infectious… and that’s why we care.
Celebrity endorsements come in a variety of flavors, from name recognition to specific product endorsements to master-branded product partnerships.
Kids on the blacktop pony up for Nike Air Jordans hoping to be just like Mike — as though the secret to his success lay in the composition of his soles.
Teenage girls struggling with impossibly teenage skin buy Guthy-Renker’s Pro Activ because Justin Bieber and Katy Perry hold up bottles of cleanser next to their smooth skin in afterschool ads — whether or not that’s what cleared their skin, or whether their skin was ever anything but clear.
Martha Stewart promises us a taste of her lifestyle through her almost ubiquitous range of household products, from mixing bowls to bed linens — though the sheets that dress her own bed are likely a bit more pricey.
But one thing differentiates these spots from DGWB’s ads for Thermador: all these public figures choose to use their faces and careers to shill products, according to terms they’ve agreed to before any camera arrives on the scene. They choose to lend the attributes and strength of their brand to a company, in exchange for a significant fee.
In Julia’s case, one of the most fundamental attributes of her brand was that it wasn’t for sale. And while that ostensibly made her (unpaid) use of their product seem like an irresistible opportunity to BHS, it also made a sincere endorsement impossible. And sketchy.
Which is why I hope the next dish on the Child Foundation’s menu is… wait for it… Lobster Therm(a)dor.