The published version of The Babel Message isn’t too different from the early drafts except in one respect: In my first draft I was a little bit cheeky about Ferrero, the company that makes Kinder Surprise Eggs. My editor convinced me that I needed to cut most of it out as 1) Ferrero are a giant corporation which means that, unless I was writing some kind of exposé (which I wasn’t), it didn’t make much sense to pull the tiger’s tail; 2) some of the cheekiness was a bit too weird.
For the sake of posterity, here is an edited version of the main extract that was cut from the book. Let me know what you think!
NB: All of what follows was properly referenced. I have taken them out in this version because, frankly, it’s deeply tedious to reformat footnotes on a web page. So sue me…
Breaking the silence
Read almost anything written about Ferrero and the same word keeps coming up: ‘secretive’. They rarely let visitors tour their factories and are obsessed with the threat of industrial espionage. The Ferrero family rarely give interviews, nor do senior staff in the company. Michele Ferrero bordered on the reclusive.
One of the reasons for this secretiveness might be simply that the company can afford not to be outgoing; it is a family business after all and tries to avoid raising money for expansion on the money markets (which would expose it to further scrutiny). It’s difficult though, not to suspect that Ferrero has something to hide. The extensive corporate social responsibility material on its website makes me more rather than less suspicious.
Inevitably, Ferrero’s tax affairs are opaque. Inevitably, questions have been raised about the company’s contribution to obesity and they have been accused of children with adverts. Inevitably, there have been (disputed) allegations that Ferrero workers in some countries are exploited. Kinder Eggs use vast amounts of plastic and other material to produce toys that, collectors aside, are likely to be disposed of after a few hours or days, it’s hard to see them as sustainable or environmentally-friendly.
What I haven’t seen is any evidence that Ferrero are any worse than their multinational peers such as Coca-Cola or Nestlé. Indeed, in some respects they appear to be a whole lot better. In 2015 for instance, they were praised by environmental groups for their responsible sourcing of palm oil. So I guess that, in a world scarred by inequality, ecocide and exploitation, we could do worse than Ferrero.
The truth is though, I’m not really interested in Ferrero. I don’t even particularly like Kinder Surprise Eggs. The chocolate is sickly (the clue is in the ‘more milk, less cocoa’ slogan) and the toys aren’t that interesting. Frankly, I would be happy if I could purchase the Manuscript without having to buy the Egg.
What I was interested in though, was trying to find someone at Ferrero who could explain to me how they construct the Message and the Manuscript. How hard could that be?
As it turned out, very very difficult.
I first contacted Ferrero UK’s press office in spring 2020. This was amid the first wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and no one was working from their offices. The phone number of the press office led to a mobile voicemail with no outgoing message. The customer careline wasn’t taking calls and ringing the main switchboard led nowhere. I also rang the phone numbers listed on Ferrero’s corporate website, none of which were answered. While Ferrero UK does at least list contacts for its press office on its website, Ferrero’s corporate headquarters doesn’t even do that.
After several months of trying, I finally managed to get an email response from the UK Ferrero press office (which is outsourced to a separate PR firm). I asked them if they could put me onto someone at the company (UK or international) who could tell me more about their warning Messages. The answer was a firm ‘No’, with no reason given.
I wasn’t done yet. I discovered the name and email of Ferrero UK’s Head of Public Affairs. I found out that he had a background in pro-European social movements and political lobbying. Who better to understand my project? A committed European federalist would surely have a love of linguistic diversity. So I got in touch. I have no wish to embarrass him or any individual at Ferrero, so I have used a pseudonym.
Vargathron, Reaper of Souls responded pleasantly but negatively:
Thank you for contacting me about this. It is an interesting idea you are working on, but I understand that our press office has already had a look at your proposal. I am not sure I have anything further to add at this stage.
I am sorry I can’t be more helpful. I am sure your project will be a great success and I look forward to seeing the end product.
I tried again, asking if we couldn’t just have a brief Zoom call, off the record, to chat about my project. It took him several weeks to respond, and then on Christmas Eve 2020, I received another email:
I think the passage of time since you write tells its own story. More than that, this is something where my press colleagues would take a lead. I think you are best off speaking to them.
I am sorry I cannot be more helpful.
I don’t blame Vargathron, Reaper of Souls for the negative response. Clearly, he is following company policy. His hands are tied. But maybe there was someone else I could find within Ferrero who might speak to me off the record? To track such a person down, I did what no one has done before: I found a use for Linkedin. The social network allows you to search by company and job title. After much trial and error, I managed to send messages to a host of Ferrero employees, asking for a confidential chat. They included:
- Magrothanra, Dowager Empress of the Scientific Regulatory Compliance Recipe Team.
- Abbanagoth, Dark Prince of Global Packaging
- Uthron Gthaal, Head Executioner of Kinder Surprise Quality
- Tenebrarum Sepulcrum, Legal Overlord of Product Liability
None of them responded. So I used another function of Linkedin to search for former Ferrero employees who had worked in packaging, legal affairs and other relevant departments. Here I managed to get two responses. One person (I can’t think of any more pseudonyms, sorry) said she hadn’t ever had anything to do with the warning Messages. The other asked me for more details about my project and then never got back to me.
My last throw of the dice was to contact former employees of a Luxembourg company called Colorbox (not a pseudonym, they don’t actually exist anymore). I found their name on an old PDF proof of the Kinder Egg wrapping and Manuscript that I found on the Ferrero corporate website. The proof suggested that it was typeset or printed by Colorbox. I contacted one graphic designer who used to work for them, but she never had anything to do with the Ferrero account. I contacted the father-and-son team who founded the company via various social networks but neither responded. I also found the person listed as the opérateur and tracked him down to a company in Luxembourg that makes personalised number plates. And then….
I took it no further because this was starting to feel a little bit like stalking. After all, the opérateur could not tell me anything about how the Manuscript was composed in the first place.
The Silent Citadel
I don’t think that my total failure to find somebody within or outside Ferrero who could explain the Message and the Manuscript to me, is necessarily a sign of their being a dark secret that Ferrero wishes to keep from me. Actually, I think it’s the reverse: if there was a dark secret that was being hidden I might have been able to find a whistleblower. Keeping a secret is only a problem if that secret begs to be shouted out from the rooftops. Not wanting to talk about something is not the same as keeping a secret. After all, by not telling you what I had for lunch today, I am not keeping anything secret from you.
What does it mean to keep silent when there is no need to keep silent? Ferrero’s commitment to silence even extends to releasing information on something that could not possibly harm them if they ‘revealed’ it. At the same time, it is the business of Ferrero to draw attention to its products. The company does not conceive of the Manuscript as a product and, hence, drawing attention to it is perceived as giving them no benefit. Once again we come to the central dilemma that Ferrero face with the Message: It must draw attention, yet it cannot be the focus of attention or it will threaten the product and the brand. By insisting on the Message’s intrinsic interest, I threatened to change that focus.
Communities, individuals and groups all have written and written rules as to what is worthy of paying attention to. For example, if you attended a country house dinner party in the nineteenth century, it would be considered gauche in the extreme to comment on the food. It can be disturbing when the rules of attention are disrupted. Vargathron and everyone else at Ferrero did not know me, other than through what they could glean online. I could have been a crank, a comedian seeking a target, or an investigative journalist seeking a scandal. In such circumstances, silence can seem like a sensible strategy.
The problem for Ferrero is that silence is a form of communication too. It speaks. But unlike other forms of communication, it cannot be dialogic. By refusing dialogue, Ferrero have lost the ability to influence what I say. This book will bring their creation precisely the sort of attention they seek to avoid. If they had engaged with me, they could at least have prevented me giving their employees juvenile pseudonyms, they could have nudged me towards creating a corporate hagiography. There is a certain magic to a chocolate company. Joana Harris, author of the novel Chocolate, was given a rare tour of the Alba factory, certainly came away charmed.
Ferrero’s silence gives me license to be cynical. It also gives me license to imagine, to play, to dream about the Message and the Manuscript.
Ferrero inhabit a Silent Citadel, limiting their communication with the world to proclamations. Their walls of that citadel prevent us from knowing how they operate and its silence means we cannot come to know it. But that citadel also imprisons its inhabitants and their silence means they can watch us and listen to us but not tell us what we must do. This is their tragedy – and our opportunity.
And for the rest of that draft of the book, I referred to Ferrero as the Silent Citadel.