The innovation and marketing are stunning. Foods and drinks that are “smart” or “functional,” so they contain ingredients to improve health or fight diseases in addition to satisfying hunger or thirst (like protein or vitamins in water or frozen dinners, and herbs or dietary supplements in yoghurt or cereal). Slimmed-down versions of full-bodied products that promise the same taste with fewer calories or fat (light anything). Reconfigured substances that taste like they used to but don’t pack the same ill-effects (sweeteners, fat substitutes). Clothing designed for workouts (active to yoga), or for bodies thereby conditioned.
The annual numbers are, ahem, huge: Functional food sales top $40 billion. $50 billion is spent on diet products ($20 billion on artificial sweeteners alone). $35 billion is spent on weight loss products and services.
There’s just one catch: they don’t work.
America is suffering an epidemic of obesity. Twelve states have adult obesity rates over 30% (four years ago, only one state qualified). This brings with it endless health implications, not to mention contributing to uncomfortable seating arrangements on airplanes. In 1995, only four states had incidences of diabetes above 6%. Now it’s 43, and 32 of them have rates above eight. Hypertension is on the rise too. It’s probably only a matter of time before life expectancy falls, which may help balance out the additional costs of healthcare for such unhealthy people.
The kid situation mirrors the problem for adults. One in three American children are overweight or obese, and a growing number of them are morbidly so.
So while marketers are addressing a clear need for healthier eating and lifestyles overall, there’s a disconnect between the brand promises and the experiential results. It’s only partially the fault of the marketers; the literal “you can have your cake and eat it too” approach to designing good foods out of bad ones simply encourages the unhealthy eating habits that make people fat and ill in the first place. It also probably encourages consumption (if my soda pop has no calories, I can drink lots more of it). We’ve all had friends who traded their full-bodied cigarettes for low-tar versions and went on to smoke more of them.
Consumers are also to blame, of course, only it’s harder to tell them that these days. We live in a culture wherein we’ve convinced ourselves that each one of us is a genius, virtuoso, poet, or that we possess whatever other quality that once required at least a modicum of ability. Our technology lets us pretend just as our entertainment lets us dream (after all, we’re all really less than six degrees separated from the winners of American Idol).
So marketers don’t tell them (us) the truth.
Losing weight is a really simple equation: less calories + more activity = reduced weight. Being healthy is the same equation, only replacing “less” with “better.” By avoiding this context — or by letting consumers avoid it, to their own detriment — it means marketers are selling to buyers’ weaknesses, and not to their strengths. It’s bad business, just like it’s bad politics for politicians to tell voters only what they want to hear; at some point, your audience either believes things that are so nutty that it’s impossible to communicate with them anymore, or they figure out you were lying to them and forsake you entirely.
Add to that the fact that many consumable marketers are busy fighting a behind-the-scenes battle to keep the junk food flowing, and make it hard for people to figure out what’s good vs. what’s bad. Trade groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) and Children’s Food and Beverage Initiative (CFBAI) regularly propose lower standards and generally oppose any limitations on what and how things are sold. You don’t need such lesser rules to promote good things, of course, but they certainly need to protect their ability to make health and well-being claims. The FDA and FTC have a helluva time chasing all the new concoctions and promises.
Also, $1.6 billion is spent annually specifically marketing food to children, much of it junk. Don’t expect to see that going away anytime soon.
It would be great if Americans were effecting a shift in their eating habits and lifestyles. It would be great if the amount of time and money being spent to sell good-for-you products to them were doing the slightest bit of good. But folks are simply eating and drinking and wearing it…and getting or staying fat.
It’s no great accomplishment for marketers to lie to couch potatoes. A smarter business would figure out how to actually get their customers up and into the salad days of healthy lifestyles. Those consumers would be more appreciative and likely to live longer, thereby continuing to buy those vitamin-infused cheese doodles you make.
(Image credit: bring on the healthy food!)