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Selling Obesity


Most of us think we’re immune to the blandishments of marketing droids. And perhaps – when we notice we’re being blandished – we are. But marketing messages are such a pervasive part of our culture that noticing every “buy” message would occupy our attention full time; we wouldn’t even have time to think about sex (except, of course, when sex is selling hamburgers) or our jobs.

AdvertOne of the largest advertising domains is food. We are brow-beaten across all media forms – TV and radio, print, billboards, even direct mail – to buy food. On a typical day I open the paper in the morning to find double page grocery store ads – several of them. Next I drive to the post office to mail a package. During the three mile trip I pass six fast food joints selling barbeque, hamburger, pizzas, and tacos. I also drive by three family restaurants and two billboards advertising fast food.

Returning home I pick up my mail and find coupons from Pizza Hut offering two pizzas for the price of one and a flyer from a local sandwich shop. Flipping on the TV that night I see 15 ads for food in a single hour of watching. And I haven’t even tried to count more subtle forms of marketing – product placement in TV shows and movies – or Web advertising.

We wonder why French women don’t get fat and Italians have fewer heart-attacks and point to what they eat. That’s certainly part of the story, but non-Americans are also far less likely to be served too much food. Here in the U.S. we are inundated with messages encouraging us to buy food. And with the exception of a few of the supermarket ads, most of the food that’s promoted is high in calories and low in nutritional value. Even the supermarkets are enticing us with Stouffers Macaroni and Cheese or Hungry Man TV dinners.

The Hungry Man dinners are an example of the most insidious form of food promotion: Eat more! Two pizzas for the price of one, a “Whopper” not a hamburger, “Super-Size it!” It’s not enough to eat regularly, you should over-eat regularly. And it’s not just the ads; it’s the restaurants themselves. The last time I ate at a fast food joint, a Burger King, the counter greeting was: “Hello-can-I-get-you-our-Whopper-combo-meal?” Whatever happened to, “What would you like?”

But maybe I am too worried about the niceties. The last time I ate in not-so-fast-food restaurant I ordered a sandwich – it was mammoth, at least 7 by 4 inches and over an inch thick. But it also came on a plate so loaded with French fries and fruit salad that the sandwich had to be cut in half and stacked. It was far more food than I could eat and I have learned to not even try.

Which is not to say I don’t overeat. I made some killer German potato salad (loaded with bacon and sour cream) the other night and went back for seconds. But it’s the rare restaurant that offers food so good I want to eat too much. And yet everywhere I turn someone is encouraging me to overeat. And not only that, but to eat the wrong things like hamburgers and fries and pizza. It isn’t that these items are innately bad, it’s just that they are too big a part of most peoples diet in frequency, quantity, and ubiquity.

Most of us think do think we’re immune to the blandishments of marketing droids. But advertising works or it wouldn’t be a multi-billion dollar industry, and places like McDonald’s or Applebee’s would have closed their doors long ago. As I noted back in “An Extra Pound or 50” if you are overweight (as I am) you are ultimately and personally responsible for being so. But the external messages pushing us toward obesity are pervasive and effective. Resisting them is difficult and requires that we be aware of the pressures brought to bear on us by the marketing droids.

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