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Monday, June 25, 2012

The Elixir of Life




Life is pretty awesome, so it stands to reason that people have wanted to stick around to enjoy it. To that end, much effort has been dedicated in the course of human history towards finding or creating magical elixirs which could either extend life or provide immortality.

The ancient Chinese thought the answer lay in long-lasting precious stones and metals, and alchemists set out to discover which could be manipulated into a substance to transfer their properties to whomever ingested them. Sadly, their early efforts focused quite heavily upon mercury, which is such an odd element it was often thought an alchemical key, and delicious-looking besides. Being exceedingly toxic, it killed many Emperors for a surprisingly long time. You’d think word would get around: don’t drink the silvery drink, but apparently not.

Ming Dynasty Emperor Jiajing, who survived an assassination attempt by his concubines, all of whom were ordered executed by "the slow slicing method" (lingchi - do yourself a favor and DO NOT look this up) and their families also killed, only to die of mercury poisoning in his quest for the fabled Elixir of Life. 

It is no surprise that the promise of longer life has always been a major tool in the huckster’s repertoire; after all, the actual efficacy of the potion can’t be measured until long after its seller has left town.

In 1973, the Dannon company decided to use this tried and true approach to increase the public interest in yogurt, so embarked on what became a highly successful advertising campaign linking long life to their product. It was called “In Soviet Georgia,” and featured various robust, active peasants of reportedly great age (their names and ages were given as an indicator of veracity) who, it was claimed, owed their longevity to eating yogurt. This was quite a daring stance to take during the Cold War, but it helped that the people in the ads wore traditional garb and didn’t look like typical soviet politicians and babushkas.


Perhaps wary of being too closely linked with the charlatans of old also promising long life, the ads declared prominently that their yogurt might not actually cause you to live longer than you otherwise would (and thus saved them from claims of false advertising), but strongly suggested that it “couldn’t hurt.” Millions agreed, and adopted it into their diets.

Nowadays, yogurt is no longer promoted with claims of a longer life, but of a more digestively comfortable one. Either way, it’s sold less as a food than as a medicine.

Dannon recently settled a $21 million lawsuit over exaggerated claims about the health benefits of its Activia yogurt.


In Soviet Georgia ad, the Dannon Company, 1977 

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