We talk a lot about the relationships that matter to us the most, and what happens when they go wrong. Romantic breakups, friendships going awry, estrangement from parents or other relatives, breakdowns in communication with colleagues. But what about the bonds we form with inanimate objects? Can you have a relationship with something that doesn’t feel any emotion? Well, Princess Diana certainly made a good fist of it for a while, am I right? I’m not talking about those people who decide they’re going to marry the Eiffel Tower, or even heirlooms or ephemera with sentimental value, but the products we share our lives with. The hand creams, the favourite prepacked sandwiches, the diet cola we always drink even though nobody else seems to like it, a certain shower gel that you’ve used so long the scent just is you, that mascara that really makes your eyes pop. We live under the shadow of rampant consumerism, and there’s no denying that the little things that make up part of our routine mean a lot to us. Personal taste is a better indicator of personality than any Myers-Briggs test or horoscope. The things we love, the stuff we use, the products we choose to buy over and over, they are at the heart of who we really are. They remind us of special moments, maybe, or are the soothing balm when we’ve had a hard day; we can rely on them more than any person we know, and even when we’re not there, someone who loves us might see or smell a product we like and think of us, sometimes for years after.
But all good things must come to an end. Our heads can be turned by new and improved formulas, by packaging that shines brighter, bottles and boxes that speak to our aesthetic much more than the dull everyday. Just as bored executives think the onset of middle-aged spread and the cringing inevitability of cultural irrelevance can be staved off by taking off their underwear in front of someone other than their partner, so too do we shrug off stuff we’ve used for years, say we fancy a change, and pledge allegiance to something fresh. What happens to these exes once we’ve moved on? Sometimes nothing, they merely soldier on, but sometimes they will fade away as subsequent devotees also look elsewhere. If we’re extra unlucky, however, we are lower down the food chain, still in thrall to this product, while others – our betters, maybe, cooler people, sexier ones, people with more money to spend – have moved on, taking their cash elsewhere, making the things we love less popular. The dreaded word. The D nobody ever wants – discontinuation.
The signs that your favourite product is about to be discontinued are easy to spot and never less devastating. It’s like any other breakup – it starts with reduced availability. Like the boyfriend who begins cancelling at short notice, or takes ages to answer your messages, your favoured product appears less regularly on the shelves. Not even a ‘sorry we’ve sold out’ notice on its ticket, just a blank shelf, or perhaps an inferior yet inexplicably more popular variety in its place so the shelves don’t look as bare. (Strawberry yoghurt, I’m looking at you.) It could be nothing, or it could be the end of everything. Sometimes you attribute it to a seasonal surge – the absence of Soleros from the little shop on the corner in the middle of a summer isn’t usually indicative of an imminent purge, for example. Perhaps there are extraordinary events preventing an appearance; a blockage in the Suez my recent favoured explanation for my basket sometimes being lighter than it should be. But often, this is the start of a very conscious uncoupling. This can go on for months – missing the odd week here and there, followed by a brief lush season where it’s always in stock, followed by a lengthier fallow period where there’s only ever one left on the shelf, which puts you off buying it because you always like to have options. Then: nothing. The ticket is still there, though, so just as you might text his friends and ask if they’ve seen him, you badger sales assistants. Are there any in the back room, you ask. There never are, but the sales assistant might fancy a five minute smoke break so if you’re feeling benevolent, you can always give them the option of looking. Might another store have them, you plead. They’re not being discontinued, are they? You’re still in denial. Oh no, of course not, the sales assistant will say, in order to get you to keep coming back to the shop to try, in the hope of getting another five minute backroom chill-out. Sometimes, though, they will give it to your straight, just like the no-nonsense wisecracking friend in the Hollywood rom-coms who gives Cameron or Kate or Reese or Renée a shake and says, LOOK, honey, it’s time to face the truth: the smoked haddock fish cakes have been discontinued – but we do a version that’s kind of the same in the frozen section.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked away, neck snapped, chin to chest like Charlie Brown, trying not to accept that it’s over. I have no fear of commitment in a relationship, but I am terrified of getting too attached to consumer goods only for them to end up discontinued, becoming fodder for dreary retro Twitter accounts that auto-post ‘HEY GANG, REMEMBER FLAVOUR N SHAKE CRISPS?!’ from @80sASDANoContext. I’m sure I’m not alone in taking this pretty hard sometimes. Is it the end of the world? No. Is everyone you love still fine? Yeah, sure, but look… these products are part of us. Deciding you like something strongly enough to repeat-buy, to choose it above all others… it doesn’t always happen overnight. We get to know these products; they feel like extensions of our selves. Sometimes it’s essential for our wellbeing that we keep these products in our life. Are the Seabrook Smoky Bacon crisps as tasty or as fun now they don’t indelibly stain your fingers with orange dye? No, they are not! Do you feel as confident now the formula of your much-loved hair cream has changed, thus leaving your hair a teensy bit crunchier and not as glossy? No, you don’t. Is it really massively annoying that the ONLY thing that worked to heal your cold sores – Lysine balm from Holland & Barrett – is no longer available and now you have to buy something more inferior from America?! You bet your herpes-simplex ass it is. Does your heart sink just a little knowing that once this ancient bottle of Givenchy’s Very Irrésistible For Men is finished, you can never smell like this again? Yes, it does, okay? It does.
And doesn’t it somehow feel like a personal slight that something you LOVE has so little value it can be expunged from existence? We long to be individuals and claim that our tastes are way cooler than anyone else’s, but sometimes you need that support from the masses, to be on the same wavelength, for your faves to succeed. But no, just like a high school in a John Hughes movie, your favoured products are involved in a never-ending popularity contest, and if they can’t get the attention of the hottest jock or coolest dude or cheerleader or princess or maverick, they are gone. Your love wasn’t enough. Unless… and here comes the really infuriating part: it’s a safety issue. Yep, that moisturiser you loved called FACE-SCALD that promised to take years off you just happened to include an ingredient banned under some cockamamie directive or whatever. So what? It made you look sexy! You want it!
The grieving process for lost favourites is complicated. It’s like knowing someone close to you is terminally ill versus losing them in an accident – okay, it’s not really that much like this, but stay with me – it’s hard to say whether it pays to know in advance. You could stockpile, of course, grab as many sachets of geranium-flavoured instant noodles or white chocolate strawberry Coco Pops as you can before they head to that great ‘I really miss Spangles and white dog poo’ archive in the sky. But sell-by dates and lack of storage or funds get in your way. You can spend your days searching for a near equivalent, hoping to recapture the magic. Or you can accept that things are never going to be the same again. Your dinners will be duller, your skin will be rougher, your eyes won’t pop at all, and you will never again walk into a room and hear someone say, ‘I knew it was you just from the smell’. Perhaps it is better to have the floor whipped away from under you than to have it disintegrate tile by tile.
There has been much to be frightened of in the last few years, but perhaps it’s the tiny, personal terror which scare the most. And I feel it now – the Isey baked apple skyr I love is out of stock one week in three; the M&S cod and katsu fishcakes only seem to be available online; it took me three visits to Selfridges in the summer before my beloved Venetian Bergamot was back in stock. This is the terrifying part, knowing it could be taken from you at any time, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Sometimes, like band reunions and TV show revivals, they bring back a classic, but it’s never the same. You’ve changed, you learned to live without them, or the formula isn’t the same, the packaging doesn’t excite you anymore. My soul cries out for the tasteful modal cotton styles of David Gandy’s nightwear range from M&S. My life isn’t the same without his endorsed undies. They brought some back briefly, a vastly inferior iteration that got holes in after a couple of washes, and their Autograph-branded pyjama dupes may claim to be the same (I checked the labels) but they are not. My skin knows the difference. J-Lo may have rediscovered her taste for Ben Affleck, but Kiehl’s Creative Cream Wax and I will never be the same again – too much water under the bridge, too many flopped quiffs.
If there’s one thing I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy, it’s the discontinuation of their favourite hair product. There are some losses that hurt too much.
For more tales of woe and products loved and lost, check out the replies to my thread about this on Twitter. Many classics, gone too soon.
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Roll of honour: just a few of the products I have loved and lost and can actually remember
Holland & Barrett Lysine; Nip + Fab Manotox; David Gandy for Autograph pants and PJs; Sainsbury’s oak smoked chicken fillets; M&S smoked haddock fishcakes (chilled); Kiehl’s Creative Cream Wax (new formula seems different); Uniqlo Supima Cotton T-shirts circa 2012 (new blend washes awfully and goes bobbly); various Toni & Guy hair pastes; Raspberry Coke Zero; Spicy Irn Bru; M&S Spirit of Summer range of food (first and second years); M&S ghost-shaped crisps Halloween 2014?; Tom Ford Rive d’Ambre; Seabrook Smoky Bacon; Touche Eclat for Men; Greggs macaroni pies/old-school flat Cornish pasties/meat and potato pies; Givenchy Very Irrésistible for Men; Winter Spice festive bleach from all major supermarkets; full-size Time Out chocolate bar.
I don’t miss Flavour N Shake crisps – they were disgusting.