I am blissfully oblivious to most advertising. Thanks to the magic of DVRs, I never watch TV commercials except when my husband forces me to sit through some surreal example he likes. I almost always page right by print ads. So it's surprising that this one jumped out at me when I was reading the Oct. 16 New Yorker (the media issue).
"Fred, your butt is getting huge," says one hippopotamus to another. "Who can we sue?"
Underneath, in slightly smaller type: "It's no joke. Trial lawyers are suing restaurants and food companies because their clients eat too much."
And then, in the smallest print: "Find out more about the attack on personal responsibility at" — wait for it — www.ConsumerFreedom.com.
I've written about the Center for — cough, cough — Consumer Freedom before, here and here. It's a front group for the restaurant, alcohol, and tobacco industries, an Orwellian spin machine that fires framing devices like "food police" and "eco terrorist" at anyone who questions industrial food practices in this country. People like … well, me and you, dear readers.
The nerve of these Big Ag hags! Worse, the deep pockets! The New Yorker's ad rates are $100,000 for a one-time, four-color, full-page ad. Yeah. I'll just bet some pissed-off, personal-responsibility militia type ponied up that kind of dough to protest lawsuits against fast-food companies. Oops, "restaurants." (A judge ruled last month that the lawsuit brought by two overweight teens against McDonald's, dismissed in 2003, could now go forward; this CNN article explains why it's not as ridiculous as it sounds.)
Let me be clear. I don't think lawsuits are the best way to accomplish the goal of getting people to eat healthier food in this country. I smoked for 10 years, and I didn't manage to quit last year because of the taxes, or because the state of California sued the tobacco companies and won. I quit because finally, I just couldn't give those companies one more cent.
As anyone who reads the Wall Street Journal occasionally — or has seen the creepy docu-prop movie The Corporation — knows, corporations exist to maximize profits. And corporations that have built their businesses on selling cheap, unhealthy food can't raise prices; they can only increase profits by getting consumers to eat more of their junk calories.
Food nutritionist Marion Nestle, author of What to Eat, says it more credibly than I can, in this Salon interview:
Salon.com: You begin with some simple health recommendations: eat less, exercise more and eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Why is the American food industry so at odds with those goals?
Nestle: Because they don't want us eating less, of course. The American food supply produces 3,900 calories a day for every man, woman and child in the country. That's twice as much food as we need. So, if you're in the food business, you've got to figure out a way to sell it. The choices are to get people eating your product instead of somebody else's, to get people to eat more in general, or to raise prices. In that situation, obesity is collateral damage.
And so why not drop 100 grand on an ad in a magazine read by over a million college-educated liberals? I imagine the teams of trial lawyers belonging to the center's friends shrugging: "If it stops one lawsuit…"
I smell the hippo-like scent of desperation, coming from a big, prehistoric animal floundering in the wake of a national sea change. Or am I just being optimistic?