The brand that dares not speak its name

Plant graphic courtesy of Shutterstock
Plant graphic courtesy of Shutterstock

Remember subliminal advertising? One of the books that exposed it is Subliminal Seduction, by Wilson Brian Key. The examples in the book use the eternal themes of sex and death to sell products. According to the book, imagery evoking these two themes appears in advertising (often deliberately inserted), thus linking commercial products to humankind’s essential preoccupations.

I don’t know if the word “sex” is being embedded in ice cubes to sell vodka any more. It seems kind of akin to thinking that you’ll hear secret messages by playing Led Zeppelin backwards. But there is no question that big alcohol, big ag, big pharm, and other such corporations are more successful when they avoid straight talk about what they do. Scenes of beautiful landscapes with maybe some kids or a couple walking hand-in-hand are equally useful to sell health insurance, financial planning, energy companies, or mood stabilizers. Subtle is better, subliminal might even be best. And now we hear that Scotts Miracle-Gro is looking at different ways of presenting its marquee brand.

According to an article in the New York Times last week, the company is focusing on community gardens, family members passing along plants, birds, butterflies, tomatoes, and more. No more plants becoming bigger and better like magic any more, and barely any mention of the actual product. As a creative director explains:

“You can’t get people into the category through functional benefits because they’re not even growing yet,” Ms. Skelly said. “We had to shift the conversation from what we’re doing for plants to what we’re doing for people.”

It makes total sense. That’s how gardening products should be sold—through convincing people of the joy of gardening, which has nothing to do with what you pour into the soil or spray on a plant. Ad agencies have long known that pictures of the Grand Canyon look better than oil pipelines and a cowboy riding the range is far more attractive than a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray.

You have to wonder what took them so long.

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Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regular radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world, and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. totally agree. And it pains me to say, b/c Scotts MG IS the devil – but good for them. Of course they’re doing it to make money but if it’s by creating more gardeners, great.

    • “Yes more gardeners whatever the cost may be”
      Winston Churchill or Jim Hagedorn take you pick

      the TROLL

  2. Kind of a double-edged sword for me here. On the one hand I agree with you (and previous commenters) that Scott’s and MG are not a “good” thing, but if their advertising gets more people involved in gardening, maybe that’s a good thing? I’m torn on this one.

  3. RE: posters above me: But convincing people the joy of gardening is easily obtained through products that are eventually a detriment to the soil & environment is the wrong way to go about it. Hasn’t this been the rail against SMG all along?

    They’ll rely on quick fixes for feeding their gardens, for getting rid of bugs, for tending to sick plants. They’ll think it’s easy while they fail to learn that 1) gardening needn’t be so chemical-y, 2) nor should it be perfect. These new gardeners will spend seasons (years?) thinking that this whole garden thing is a breeze and just what is it that those garden writers have been going on about all these years? Why bother with attempting organic anything when the miracle of chemistry is so much faster, less work-intensive, bigger-bolder-better?

    By the time they start having issues with the soil (intensified on small suburban plots) or with infestations, it’ll be pretty late in the game. They’ll have to educate themselves pretty fast about integrating more-earth-friendly controls & practices.

    I guess it was way past due that SMG figured out they needed to sell the sizzle, not the steak. But it’s still obvious they are a chemical company selling to quick-fix seekers, not a gardening company concerned with providing responsible products to consumers.

    • Gardening needn’t be so chemical-y? That’s ridiculous. There are a much greater number of chemicals in compost than in say Ammonium Sulfate.

      • Yes, I understand everything is made up of elements, i.e., “chemicals”. However, I think it’s been discussed on GR (and other sites) before that when discussing gardening, “chemicals” is understood to mean artificially-produced, engineered, or non-organic materials (ammonium sulfate, RoundUp, SMG, etc). “Organic” is presumed to be the opposite — naturally-produced, not using/containing artificially-made materials.

  4. I’ve been so traumatized by marketing “experts” and “ad men” that I now become nauseated every time I hear the word “brand”. Marketers, just, please, tell me why I should part with hard-earned cash to purchase whatever you’re selling and don’t do it by trying to convince me that I or my yard will become attractive to some voluptuous young vixen that I can’t keep up with anyway at my age. Let’s convince people that home gardening is good by sponsoring side-by-side comparisons of a strawberry from the supermarket and from a local garden.

  5. It really does people a huge disservice to show them the garden ‘lifestyle’ without including both the physical and mental work and personal integrity it takes to have one. These newly converted gardeners are set up to fail which doesn’t produce a garden lover in the end but a dissallusioned and disappointed person.
    I am hopeful that people might be starting to clue in to the fact that insta-anything might not be the way to go, that gardens are not photographs, that our small gardens can solve big problems like polluted water and disappearing habitat, not create them.

  6. Me too: distrust SMG and won’t use their products, but like the descriptions of the stories they’ll be telling in their new ad campaign. But I wonder if the experienced gardeners they feature actually used those products, or if the paycheck was too good to pass up.

    Those products are everywhere. It’s hard to find a seed-starting mix that isn’t MG (so I start my seeds later because I mix my own or go to a hydro store). On gardening forums, sometimes people mention that they used MG potting soil and their seedlings didn’t thrive, or dumped it in the garden and there are weird blobs. As a result, they sought out gardening advice and will learn about better ways of doing things. So maybe MG is a gateway product to the bigger drug, gardening itself.

    My favorite line from the link: “Down the purchase funnel we can talk more about efficacy claims,” Ms. Skelly said. Visualizing the purchase funnel…

  7. Many folks want to be gardeners without doing the work; want to be Eric Clapton without practicing chords; want to be Bruce Lee without punching the bag. These commercials take advantage of such people by implying (or outright claiming) that it is possible.

    But! But sometimes some – not all, but some – of these beginners find out that they *like punching the bag, or practicing chords, or just digging in the dirt. In time, they become pretty good. But I’d rather start them off right. Beginning gardeners can be shown how to start a few seeds in a half barrel or small raised bed, or a windowsill. Save the poisons for dire circumstances, if ever, and if they turn out to be real gardeners, they won’t have to unlearn corporate nonsense and undo the damage.

  8. Sorry – I have to say I’d rather people NOT garden if they are using synthetics and poisons to do it. Do something else – take up yoga or knitting or watercolors, at least those are fairly benign. But creating imbalances in our ecosystem in the name of doing something good for the ecosystem – ie gardening – is just weird logic to me. Gardening in and of itself isn’t the good thing, it is gardening done well and responsibly. If I told people on this forum that maybe it is okay to put running bamboo in a garden because “hey, you are gardening after all and that is a good thing!”, or if I said to go ahead and plant a tree that will grow to be 60 ft tall in a small paved courtyard because it’s a good thing that SOMETHING is being planted, it would be fairly clear that I would be wrong to say that. ALL GARDENING ISN”T GOOD, in my opinion. Good gardening, responsible gardening, earth friendly gardening is good gardening – to me. NO to SMG and their new tactics – it means those who know better need to educate those who don’t!

  9. Wow, some of you people are really hard core. I’ve never posted here before, but since there are probably some novice gardeners who read this i want to give a different perspective. I don’t think Miracle grow is the devil. i have been gardening for 40 years, compost truckloads of horse manure each year and take very good care of my soil and plants. I still keep some MG in the garage. I find it works really well on heavy feeders such as delphiniums and roses, as an addition to organic amendments. i use it half strength and just occasionally directly on the plant. it is great for helping plants recover quickly when moved as late transplants, its great for plants that are recovering from insect or disease attack, and i finally have an indoor gardenia growing and flowering after seeing many die, — the key to success was MG for acid loving plants. it is not the be all end all, and will hopefully allow novice gardeners to experience some success, so that they learn the full extent of garden culture. but it will not “poison” the garden (my soil if teeming with worms and good fungus), the world is not that black and white.

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