honey, i shrunk the groceries



Woh-ho-oh, the nips are gettin’ bigger,” Mental as Anything famously sang back in a time of largesse and long lunches.

Sadly, those days have long gone.

Now, you’re far more likely to find that drink a few millilitres short of the full litre bottle thanks to the magic of modern manufacturing whereby, hey presto, less actually costs more.

This law of diminishing returns to the consumer is a world-wide phenomena afflicting the full raft of supermarket products from laundry detergent, tissues, soap and toilet paper to chips and lollies.

Dubbed the great “grocery shrink ray” by the US-based consumer affairs blog The Consumerist , this down-sizing of products and the converse up-sizing of price has been going on for decades.

Cadbury is the latest, with the recent announcement on its Facebook page that it was reducing the size of its 220g block of Dairy Milk (which in the really joyful days was 250g) to 200g because of rising production costs.

Of course it’s not just Cadbury’s. Arnott’s was the recipient of one of Choice’s Shonky Awards in 2014 for introducing its “premium” peanut flavoured Tim Tam which contained absolutely no peanut and only nine biscuits equating to 165 grams for the same price as a 200 gram – 11 biscuit pack.

Lolly lovers squirmed with discomfort when Nestle cut the Allen’s Killer Python from 47g to 24g so it resembled not so much a boa constrictor as an anorexic asp. A least in this instance the price of the slim-line individual pythons was slashed accordingly while the price of medium-sized bags of them remained the same and the net weight actually increased slightly.

Other companies which have made a virtue of reducing “portion” size to meet good dietary guidelines have not been so generous.

In 2010 Unilever, the parent company of Streets, announced it was reducing the size of Paddlepops by 15 per cent to make them “healthier” and meet school canteen guidelines. But there was no comparable drop in price, leading to claims the company was sugar-coating how they were cutting costs.

Companies like Kellogg’s are … hmm, hmm cereal offenders. In recent years it has shrunk the amount of snap, crackle and pop in its breakfast products and repriced them, resulting in unit price increases of up to 16.4 per cent in the case of Cornflakes and 14 per cent in the case of Rice Bubbles.

Across various brands you’ll find less chippies in chip packets, less fish in the can, less soap to lather, less ice cream in the tub, less detergent in the packet, less tissue in the box and even less sheets in the toilet paper thanks to bigger cardboard rolls.

Such changes usually go hand in hand with new packaging, new slogans and are often billed as “healthier” or “greener” options – either because there is less for you to consume or not so much packaging.

There is actually a logarithm manufacturers go by when they don’t want their customers to equate shrinking products to a price hike.

The Weber-Fechner law states in effect that if you present people with a product of say 1 kilo they will not notice a change in the weight if it is no more than 10 per cent – a threshold known as “just noticeable difference.”

Where will it all end?

Now that’s a super-sized question!


the name game


He was clearly a much-loved man. Two columns of tributes to a wonderful, brother, father, uncle and friend attested as much. Poor “Cousin Droop”!

I wonder how the dead man came to be nicknamed after one of the more distant relatives of the Addams Family – only apparently referenced in season one of the original TV series, the episode called Uncle Fester’s Toupee.

That this man has gone to the grave in his mid-60s being called by all and sundry by an epithet he probably earned as a kid also says something about the staying power of a well-chosen nickname.

Australians have a long proud tradition of bestowing nicknames both individually and on whole states and nations: eg, Sandgropers, Banana Benders and Crow-Eaters, Poms and Kiwis.

As one fact sheet on Australian customs for international students helpfully explains: “A nickname is not a person’s real name but a name given by friends (usually) because of some physical characteristic or behaviour pattern, or it may be a simple contraction.

For example someone very tall might be given the nickname Shorty, or a person with red hair called Blue.

Being called a nickname is not uncomplimentary; in fact, it is often a sign of acceptance and affection.”


Disappearing down the rabbit hole to my childhood, many of the nicknames I remember were not nice, if not downright cruel.

I recall a boy we called Handbag which was a play on his surname Case, but also because he used to hang around being kept largely at arms’ length by his peers. Then there was a girl dubbed The Ardvark who used to sit in class repetitively tugging out her own her hair.

These names I fear were not helpful to either individual’s emotional well-being and personal development.

Even endearments bestowed by family members which seemed cute in childhood can be a terrible burden in adulthood.

But then given names too carry immense psychological and social significance. Various onomastics studies have shown the length, sound and pronunciation of a name can influence whether you get hired for a job and even how much you earn.

For example, you are more likely to wind up as CEO of the company if you go by the name Rob or Bob than Robert, while a woman’s aspiration toward the top job is more likely to be be successful if she uses the full name Deborah rather than Debbie.

Even initials come into play, with one Yale University study showing people whose names begin A and B average better marks than those beginning with C and D, while Zena and Zane Zimmerman are more likely to be quite impatient having spent a lifetime languishing at the end of alphabetic rolls.

But now that baby names have become a matter of choice rather than following accepted tradition the name game is changing.

It is no longer possible to make assumptions about ethnicity, age or even gender based solely on a name on a page.

With names becoming more and more individualised, nicknames seem less prevalent.

For the Handbags, Advarks and, even I suspect, The Cousin Droops of the world, this is probably no bad thing.


neighbours, still good friends


Flipping over to the New Year on the desk calender, there’s nothing guaranteed to age you more than a list of anniversaries of things that turn 20 in 2015 except, perhaps, the list of things that turn 30.

Did you know it’s two decades since the DVD was invented? The year 1995 also gave rise to The Macarena, JavaScript, and the firstToy Story movie was released.

Hugh Grant was infamously caught with a prostitute named Divine Brown on Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, engaged in what Time magazine called “felonious fellatious activity”, and OJ Simpson was tried and acquitted.

Really, I hear you say, was it that long ago?

Travelling back further, to 1985, Michael J Fox first took us Back to the Future, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros and the very first version of Windows, Windows 1.0, opened up a whole new world.

2015 also marks the 30th anniversary of Neighbours. The soap opera set in Ramsay Street in the fictional Melbourne suburb of Erinsborough first went to air on the Seven Network on March 18, 1985.

It failed miserably in the Sydney market and, in a decision that doubtless still haunts certain erstwhile executives, Seven scuppered it.

The show was immediately bought by Channel 10 and went on to become not only the longest-running drama series in Australian history, but arguably our most influential cultural export.

Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee may be the best known cinematic character, but Neighbours took up permanent residence in people’s loungerooms and hearts, having been sold to 57 countries from Austria to Zimbabwe.

Nowhere was it better received than in the UK, attracting up to 20 million viewers at its peak in the late ’80s.

First appearing on TV screens in the bitter economic winter of the Thatcher years, the Aussie soap offered a ray of sunshine and much-needed escape for England’s disaffected youth.

Its stars Kylie Minogue (Charlene Mitchell) and Jason Donovan (Scott Robinson) dominated the UK pop charts with I Should Be So Lucky and Nothing Can Divide Us respectively, while their duet Especially for You stayed in the charts for 14 weeks.

Even Suddenly, the Angry Anderson power ballad which accompanied Charlene and Scott’s wedding, made it to Number 3 on the UK charts on the strength of the soap’s popularity.

It was the start of an Aussie invasion that went well beyond the backpackers of Earls Court.

As Alywn W. Turner noted in his book Rejoice, Rejoice Britain in the 80s, Australian wine overtook sales of French wine and the rising inflexion entered speech patterns.

But much more than promoting the sunny image of Australia, Neighbours has gently helped educate viewers with sometimes controversial storylines tackling issues of domestic abuse, teenage pregnancy, alcohol, drug and gambling addiction, incest, eating disorders, bullying and depression.

In recent years it has also included openly gay and more culturally diverse characters to better reflect modern Australia.

It may not be breaking new ground, nor tearing up the ratings any longer, but the soap models an inclusive society centred on family and community.

Which is why after three decades Neighbours can still be called good friends.