Marketing & Manipulation ... and Musings ...
There's been quite the discussion going on in comments of The Men Who Made Us Fat, and I decided my commentary might be better organized in a blog post. I can certainly see the positions of both sides there, but in the end I come down on the side of "Eric" when he says this:
"Until we accept that Obesity is a lifestyle choice ( either voluntarily or by apathy ) no real fix can every be made without crushing regressive taxation on food. To blame "big food" is a dangerous cop-out that reinforces the negative cycle."
The so-called "simple obesity" -- the epidemic of indisputable overeating to the tune of an average of 500 calories per day -- is very much a lifestyle choice. In my case, the obesity of the late 90's and the 2000's was in large part due to apathy or laziness. Too many take out meals instead of cooking something. And take out means too many fried, processed, calorie dense foods. Or just eating crackers and cheese watching TV -- before you know it a sleeve is gone, and you haven't even had a "meal". It's ordering the quarter pounder and medium fries when a regular burger and small fries is enough. It's having McD's on the road instead of packing a snack for the long trip. CHOICES.
I'd also like to be clear that I was born and raised and lived all my life in the northeast US. But I was raised with some decided European influences -- e.g. I would be sent out to play in the back yard shirtless long past the age where Americans put meaningless bikini tops on our little girls. To see how different things are these days, having little to do with food, it is instructive to check "The Mindset List". They list the things entering college freshman (if they come straight from HS) have never experienced or have always had in their lifetimes to date. It's always an eye opener. (This past Spring I experienced this a bit as I've taught a forensic science class for many years now, and I realized that now these students know little of OJ Simpson, the excruciatingly long presentation of the DNA evidence that wasn't cut and dry at the time, etc., they were in diapers). A few from this year's list:
- GPS satellite navigation systems have always been available.
- Coke and Pepsi have always used recycled plastic bottles.
- Shampoo and conditioner have always been available in the same bottle.
- Gas stations have never fixed flats, but most serve cappuccino.
- Electronic filing of tax returns has always been an option.
- All have had a relative--or known about a friend's relative--who died comfortably at home with Hospice.
- Haagen-Dazs ice cream has always come in quarts.
- Club Med resorts have always been places to take the whole family.
- WWW has never stood for World Wide Wrestling.
- Clarence Thomas has always sat on the Supreme Court.
- Schools have always been concerned about multiculturalism.
- IBM has never made typewriters.
- McDonald’s and Burger King have always used vegetable oil for cooking french fries.
- The Tonight Show has always been hosted by Jay Leno and started at 11:35 EST.
- They may have been given a Nintendo Game Boy to play with in the crib.
- Authorities have always been building a wall along the Mexican border.
- Lenin’s name has never been on a major city in Russia.
- Balsamic vinegar has always been available in the U.S.
- Caller ID has always been available on phones.
- They never heard an attendant ask “Want me to check under the hood?”
- Iced tea has always come in cans and bottles.
- Soft drink refills have always been free.
- They have never known life without Seinfeld references from a show about “nothing.”
- Windows 3.0 operating system made IBM PCs user-friendly the year they were born.
- Muscovites have always been able to buy Big Macs.
When I was growing up, we had two groceries within walking distance, a few more within driving distance including a "health food store". They were open M-Sat for at most 12 hours/day, and if open on Sunday hours would be noon-5. Other stores were not open on Sundays ... as it is today still in NJ! We had a TV with a dial, 7 channels reception. No VCR. Every classmate in grammar school had two married parents, a few with step parents, I knew of one girl being raised by a divorced mom. The government influence on school meals was minimal, we had a milk program where we paid like a nickel a day for a tiny carton of milk. We had snack time at around 10am in grammar school, we were given an after school snack around 3pm when school let out. We walked to grammar school but we were usually driven to high school as it was further away. There were no "latch key" kids at least up to an age when we were old enough to care for other kids.
Young girls babysat, young boys mowed lawns for pocket money. Oh ... and if you were lucky, you got a "mother's helper" gig, which meant you watched kids for a few hours and maybe fed them dinner. There was no such thing as day care. I didn't need a license to babysit, and my brother didn't need one to mow lawns. (Nowadays my neighborhood is groomed by lawn services and children are cared for by nannies). Many (most?) entering kindergarten did not attend preschool (I didn't), and my mother had to write a letter to the teacher to introduce her to her child and explain why at not yet five, I was mature enough to handle a half day.
Oh ... and there were commercials for food and cartoon characters, and candy and sugar (you can't be more blazon about sugar than pixie stix and lick'em ade -- google it). McDonalds commercials were aimed at kids -- or do you think Ronald McDonald and Hamburgler were aimed at adults?! Sugar Frosted Flakes (as they were called before they had take sugar off the label by some regulation) were GRRRREEEEAAAAAT!!! And lunchrooms were filled with Twinkies and HoHo's brought from home with lunch that was usually a sandwich on Wonder (the whitest of white) bread. Lunch monitors were there to protect us from spit balls, noogies and food fights, not examine our lunches to make sure they were compliant with some guidelines. Oh ... but let's not forget Tang -- because the astronauts drank it!
We weren't yet bombarded with assemblies, now curricula, that dealt with diversity, sexual harassment, being a good citizen by recycling, saving the planet from global warming, etc., but we did see the beginnings of it. We did learn some cooking basics in Home Economics. Saving the planet meant saving my parents money on the electric bill by shutting lights off in rooms where we weren't. In sex ed I certainly learned things I had no business learning from a stranger and not only was premarital sex presented as acceptable (this was the 70's remember), we were taught birth control, told where to get it for free, and even passed around a sample of flavored contraceptive foam <-- in an era when 14-15 year olds didn't know what a Lewinsky was. Speaking of which, in 5th or 6th grade we had our girls only tutorial on becoming a woman back when tampons were still quite controversial (and taught how to insert them) and Kotex still made bulky pads with a belt (sorry guys). In college the only course I ever took that dealt with any of that stuff was Masculine & Feminine, and we did have a Lamda Youth day back when everyone wasn't out.
Seventeen magazine was pretty much the magazine aimed at teen girls and how we were supposed to be, what we should be concerned about and all that. Later there were all manner of women's magazines -- Glamour, Self, Cosmo, Shape. ...
Which brings me to the collusion and marketing and manipulation of the food industry. Look, I don't deny it exists. There's also an unholy alliance with government and subsidies. The solution to that is to work to end the subsidies. Marketing? Well, if we let (and we have) our government dictate what is healthy, we have ourselves to blame. We have, as a nation, sat back and traded freedoms for security left and right to where parents often have to resort to home schooling if they want to have any control over their child's upbringing.
- If we look to the government to dictate what's healthy, and the genius marketers can figure a way to incorporate that message into their advertising to get you to buy their crappy product ... who is to blame?
- If we let our kids watch TV unattended and give them $5/day and let them fend for themselves with little supervision ... who is to blame when they buy chips and cookies and all those goodies?
Look, I don't envy being a parent these days. But one can throw up their arms in surrender or be proactive. We didn't get fat as kids mostly because we didn't have access to unlimited chips, soda, candy, and other crap. We didn't get to choose what to eat. If there were cookies in the house they were doled out - 2 or 3 depending on size usually with a small glass of milk. You ate your veggies or there was no dessert. Picky kids ate zucchini ... there were no clever cookbooks for making fruity smoothies or cupcakes to "hide" the vegetable.
And a note to all those paleo and low carb parents out there ... just be careful not to overdo it. I'm not a parent and I'm not telling you how to raise your kids. But sooner or later they'll grow up, and be going out with friends and spending money they've earned. Maybe they'll stick with how they were raised. Or like many, they will rebel, or at least experiment. If you demonize foods so much, that they never have them in their appropriate context -- occasional treat (that's not a dirty word even if you've convinced yourself that wheat is murder and one donut is a poison pill) -- they're ripe for the picking to go overboard. I was raised pretty darned WAPF-paleo-PHD friendly. There was no junk in our house and when Mom baked from scratch it was with reduced sugar, no frosting, and the goodies were rationed out. It made McD's and Twinkies have an allure greater than the food itself possessed. If you've had such foods on occasion, they lose that extra allure, but don't do any damage like if they are consumed regularly. I liken it to alcohol in Europe vs. America. When the drinking age was 18 in most places, nobody worried over minors drinking. The people I know who had a glass of wine or a beer as a teen with their parents generally did not grow up to be drinkers and weren't the ones checked into the detox ward their first party in college. Now that the age is 21, they aren't supposed to be able to drink in college even. Ahh, but they do ... And how do they do it? Now we have binge drinking problems. You don't see that in France. Same alcohol. Same humans. Same metabolism. Dramatically different outcome based on societal attitude.
As to fast food and processed food, the food manufacturers gave us what we wanted! Packaged and frozen TV dinners used to taste like crap. So the food scientists went to work and found ways to freeze and reheat foods without sauces separating or meat turning to rubber, etc. Then the microwave was invented and a whole new crop of food scientists went to work. I still will not "cook" many things in one, but they do "bake" a potato in under 10 minutes and I'm forever grateful for the inventor of steam in the bag veggies!! But in my youth, as a singleton, you really could do a lot worse than a Lean Cuisine! Fast food establishments started staying open later, offering breakfasts, having 24 hour drive thrus because people came and wanted it. Do you think BK is going to pay someone to keep the building open 24 hours if nobody comes?? Folks decry that there aren't more healthy options, etc. Well thing is, nobody bought the McLean Deluxe (it was actually pretty tasty, they were always made fresh b/c almost nobody bought them and had lettuce and tomato) or the low fat menu at Taco Bell, or, for that matter, many of the low carb wraps offered in the Atkins boom of 2003-ish.
Diet foods have been around since I can remember, they've just gotten a whole heckuvalot better tasting. And who do we have to blame for that ... for the evil Snackwell? We are not stupid. It's time to stop acting like we are. If I'm eating a certain way and its making me fat, I'm going to stop eating that way (thinking like someone who hasn't dieted per se). Just because the government tells me breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I'm not going to start eating it when I've never been one that is hungry until several hours after waking up.
The government most certainly has nothing to do with the explosion of drink obsessions. It became fashionable to drink at Starbucks. Heck, even regular coffee is no longer good enough for McD's ... do you think they'd be going into the crappacino market if there wasn't a CONSUMER?? Oh ... and chai and whatever. Coldstone Creamery makes their caloric abomination shakes and DQ their Blizzards because people buy them and like them. Doritos make their chips because people eat them. And corn? Well, corn chips being tasty is nothing new - oh and they used to be marketed by a cartoon character too ... the Frito Bandito <-- no longer politically correct. So corn stuff is now "whole grain" and "gluten free" as it always has been, but it's the manufacturers and marketers manipulating you into eating it with their clever marketing?
We are perhaps reaping what we sowed in our prosperity. Are SUV's the fault of the auto industry? Or was it that not everyone wanted to drive around in coffins on wheels and this was how they could bring you a "station wagon" under the new regulations/mandates? Do you need power everything in your car? Air conditioning? Many things that were upgrades you could select from a book in the 70's that now come standard in even the lowest model of many vehicles -- and are reflected in the price. When I graduated college my car payment was more than my rent, and my car cost $11K. Who the heck duped us stupid idjuts into believeing we NEEDED power steering, power breaks, power windows, power mirrors, power locks, remote trunk latch (heck, trunk release by the driver seat)? I took my drivers' test on a car that had none of that. So is the auto industry responsible for our sedentary behavior?
What's so awful about the food engineer and marketing manager who is successful at selling their product and engineering it to consumer wants/needs, but noble about the engineer and marketing folks at Big Auto? When I bought my 2nd car, it had roll down windows but power mirrors and some other luxuries. I didn't want or need those, but for $300 more than the other model, heck, I'm taking that value! This is what happened with the whole super sizing. Nobody is going to a restaurant that advertises "small portions". We want value.
Manipulation? Well, I brought up women's magazines for a reason. In my late 20's I stopped reading them. It was the best thing I ever did, and I encourage all women everywhere to just stop reading the garbage. The collusion between the advertisers and editors and writers is worse than anything you imagine for Big Corn and our government. And while some of the potions of today do actually do something for wrinkles, etc., the potions of the 80s did not (collagen in a cream isn't going to incorporate into your skin, keratin in a conditioner isn't going to incorporate into your hair) ... didn't stop huge ads there. The Dove commercials with "real women" in their undies are genius! But the fashion, what's in, what you should wear for your figure, how you can fix this or tone that, all of that crap is a ton of nonsense. Women are manipulated every day by the cosmetics and fashion industries. I grew up in the era of the ERA, the hey day of modern feminism. Despite it not being passed -- something Gloria Steinem assured us would keep us barefoot and preggers -- women exceed men in admissions and graduations in many professions, even those formerly dominated by men. Be a stay at home mom? ... well ...
And nothing but nothing about many of the paleo and low carb and various exercise gurus that is any different. The only thing worse that "The Man" manipulating you, is being manipulated by a reactionary attitude against "The Man". Well maybe not worse, but equally insert your own moralistic adjective here.
What I find disturbing about the blame game is how easy it was for me to unplug from it all. And not by going into seclusion and becoming a subsistence farmer in some remote area. I just no longer buy magazines. Food ads on TV? The only ones I ever responded to were things like Crystal Light when it came out. Anything else? No. I don't eat frozen pizza, so could care less if DiGiorno rises in the oven. I don't eat mac & cheese from a box, so I don't care which is cheesiest. Or what new Doritos flavor there is. If the ads bothered me, I could shut the TV off. Or DVR programs and skip the commercials. But just unplug from it. It's far easier than you think if you're an adult. I have far greater challenges living with a spouse who doesn't eat the same way I do, though he's even changed quite a bit since I've been cooking more. I have no problem passing Doritos in the store, it's more difficult when there's a bag in the house, but even then there are ways around it (hubs must store them out of sight, and though it doesn't bother me, he would not eat them in front of me if I asked). Someone mentioned travel? Really? It may be a bit more challenging but if it does you in, it's not the fault of the food manufacturers. Signs for food? Billboards? Really?? I can see the smell of fresh baked bread or aroma of pizza, etc. But a sign? A picture? If that really causes you to lose control, then perhaps some counseling is in order.
Peer pressure was mentioned. That is IT folks. It's that your neighbor has that car, or that gadget, or that tool, or that whatever. We Americans have a saying about "keeping up with the Joneses" -- Corporations kept having to outdo each other as the consumers kept trying to outdo each other or get that better value. But with food I think it's more social pressure. We socialize around food and alcohol. Few just get together for anything without food being part of the picture. Is this something Big Food and the US Government invented? No. Plan accordingly and don't be too inflexible and it becomes a non issue. Trust me. If this former binge eater can be so indifferent to it all at this point, anyone can be. And if I can eat a handful of Doritos (probably one of the most engineered palatable foods on the planet) out of a big bag and walk away, you can to! Yes .. you CAN!!
CHOICES. The alternative, as Eric stated, is draconian regulations. I've never been a smoker, but always been against the anti-smoking campaigns. Yes, fewer people smoke, but those that still do are penalized greatly by taxes 5X the cost of the cigs themselves that aren't going towards healthcare, and they still pay surcharges on their own health insurance and life insurance premiums. What next ... will a parent who smokes in front of their kids because it sets a bad example? If Lustig has his way, sugar will be viewed as equivalent of alcohol. Nanny Bloomberg is already trying to ban drinks over 16 oz as if that will do anything but make the lives of the restaurant owners more difficult. Kids can't bring cupcakes from home for birthdays? Government officials inspecting brown bag lunches -- perhaps not allowing a small real apple juice? And don't think they won't be coming for your beloved fat. And here in NY we have 10 foot signs announcing the calories in the special of the month at McD's. Yeah, only in America is 800 calories for $3.99 a crime.... The "community" rants like some libertarian/anarchistic lot, but they seem to be the first to line up to defend the hyperbole of Lustig, the demagoguery of Taubes, etc. They don't like the "healthywholegrains" and would love to see that regulated out of existence, and yet CAFO beef, homogenized/pasteurized milk, and store brand eggs are unacceptable substitutes. Ban this, ban that, tax this, tax that.
There's that saying about "when they came for the name oppressed group I did nothing ... then they came for me". The only way for that not to play out here with this diet/health situation we find us in is to stop empowering government to "come for" anyone, and take personal responsibility. Ancel Keys and marketing execs at McDonalds didn't make you fat.
Off soap box. :D
"I think environment is *extremely* relevant but it's broad and vast [a lot more than food and marketing is involved]. People who are on the wrong side of the power curve will STILL BE THERE when it costs more to buy a coke or when the Happy Meals aren't allowed to have toys in them. I think it is always worth the effort and study to be free than to be a well managed slave which is the best possible outcome of using taxation and regulation to attempt to generically sanitize my environment for me on my dime. The best possible outcome is not generally the true result in any case."I agree with this comment by Bentley, also on that thread, that was made while I was composing this post or it would have been included on top. Especially that bolded line.
Update #2: Beth's comment reminded me of Mike's recent comment here that he expanded on in a blog post. Perhaps instead of personal responsibility, it's more an epidemic of human nature. Former block countries many (but not all) were overtaken by freedom, choices, and consumerism ... and perhaps the opportunity to act on greed and instant gratification without penalty. Meanwhile industrialized Western cultures fell prey to the same impulses that could now be gratified with little effort or money (vs. the "old days"). Humans are good at "gaming the system". Nice post Mike! http://evilgnome6.blogspot.com/2012/06/gaming-system.html