Thursday, June 21, 2012

Afternoon Delight

Where to begin?

Diet advertising has always gone for the jugular: willpower. This plays into the idea that obesity is caused by that most insidious of all mental failings: lack of control. If the assumption is that a fat person can’t help themselves when it comes to succumbing to foods they should avoid eating, then food companies try to make eating it seem like it’s part of your “diet.”

A problem at the heart of this is the duality of the word “diet.” It is used both to refer to one’s diet in general — the totality of what we consume on a regular basis — and a diet, meaning a specific reduction in what we consume in order to lose weight.

The word diet is from old French, diete, meaning “a pittance,” which is in turn from the Latin dieta, meaning both “parliamentary assembly” and “a day’s food allowance.” This can be traced back to the older term diaita, meaning “prescribed way of life,” in Greek. The duality of meanings stems from a common point: the word’s The Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root is ai — “to give, allot” which also gives us the Latin dies, “day.” The daily offices of the Church took this root, leading to the idea of assembly. The consumption of food — eating one’s daily bread — is thus inextricably linked to the daily activities of consumption and communing. The Diet of Worms is perhaps the most familiar remnant of the use of the word Diet in this sense.

1521: Martin Luther defends his 95 Theses before Emperor Charles V in Worms, Germany

Being able to say “my diet” allows the brain to cheat when it comes to making decisions about what to put in your mouth. Hence the stunning confusion of images and text you see on the cover of every women’s magazine stacked at the supermarket checkout, which are extensions of what you see in this ad for sugar. Pornographic images of high-calorie sweets such as seasonally decorated cakes are presented alongside headlines that promise you can “Lose weight by eating all you want!” or “Drop 50lbs by Thanksgiving!” These covers are pornographic because they are designed to appeal directly to the id and stimulate deep-seated libidinal appetites — in short, they inspire a physical response (salivation, hunger) that overrides your better judgment. It’s part of your “diet,” after all, so what’s the harm, right?

A band which started out with the name "Fat City" on a show presented by someone named Burt Sugarman on his show "Midnight Special," singing a song about having sex in the (gasp!) daytime. 

The wording of this sugar ad also strikes at the place where words excite us. This is a “diet dodge,” a loophole you can exploit to fulfill your desires. In 1970, when this ad appeared in women’s magazines, the word “dodge” had other, more political connotations, most often heard in the phrase “draft dodgers.”

The word “undereat” is also no accident. It is the dearest wish for those with no willpower to be able to undereat (as opposed to overeat). This ad suggest that the dodge will allow them to attain this ability — perversely by overeating (who needs an ice cream and lunch?)

The word “need” appeals to your sense of entitlement: we all have needs, and want them fulfilled. Acknowledging a consumer / dieter’s personal need (for satiation) is a selling point. The ad says you need sugar to achieve your goals.

Finally, let’s not overlook the obviously sexual nature of the imagery: that is not an innocent ice cream cone, is it? It’s what you hope to do unselfconsciously once you lose the flab and become attractive to men once again. At long last, you’ll have the energy to enjoy some Afternoon Delight.

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