The Americanization of Obesity

In recent months, world health officials have reported a dramatic growth in the percentage of the US population that can be classified as morbidly obese. The World Health Organization has characterized this increase in obesity as an “epidemic”, citing an estimated 60% of the people in the US as overweight.


What is the source of this problem? Is it the fast food industry, who taunts us in their frequent advertisements with taste-tempting delicacies we can get quickly and relatively cheaply? What more could one ask for than a Big Mac with a super sized order of fries and a 32-ounce Coke, all for $2.99, at your friendly neighborhood MacDonald’s restaurant?

According to the film Super Size Me, a documentary by Morgan Spurlock, McDonald’s accounts for 46% of the fast food industry in the world. It serves 46 million customers a day in over 100 countries. A true international icon, MacDonald’s is for all intents and purposes an ideal example of Americanization and Globalization. In many ways this company represents the American culture of consumerism and excess, and has been cited as a significant contributor to the rise in obesity here in the US, largely due to its high-calorie menu and enormous marketing influence. .

At the other end of the spectrum, it appears that Americans are also keenly aware of the fact that they are overweight, as evidenced by the popularity of “quick-fix” diets and too-good-to-be-true weight loss programs. We’ve seen the rush of trust in the Atkins diet, and the adaptation to this fad by the food industry. Before that we were obsessed with Jared and his Subway diet. These urges are also fed by a constant barrage of infomercials, books, talk shows, and advertisements.

The media has also perpetuated the concept of what an ideal body should be – slim, sexy, and strong, in stark contrast to the reality of an increasingly overweight, non-active population. But perhaps we are beginning to accept that we are an overweight culture. In a recent commercial for Universal Studios Theme Parks, a group of tourists is shown in their happiest moment at the park. They are bouncing around, laughing, smiling, and enjoying their time at Universal, all shot in slow motion. There would appear nothing odd about this ad except the fact that the actors are all overweight. The emphasis is no longer the attention to the fun they are having, but to the amount of fat on their bodies in slow motion. Was this an attempt by Universal to address a new target audience? Or were they merely poking fun?

According to Sut Jahlly, “the falsity of advertising is not in the appeals it makes but in the answer it provides. We want love and friendship and sexuality – and advertising points the way to them through objects” (Anderson pg 32). Jahlly’s take on advertising is that the world has become a materialistic society, obtaining happiness through the collecting of objects. While this is true in a sense, Jahlly overlooked once object we all possess and that we all take for granted in one way or another. That object is our own body.

Advertising and the media has in recent years portrayed an image of its actors as all beautiful and in great shape. Through association we as a culture begin to believe that by buying the objects that are advertised by these good looking people, we too will be as healthy and happy as they are. The question is then is advertising to blame for our self expectations or do we simply not want to accept the truth that we are a lazy culture? The argument of overweight people is that corporations like McDonald’s who create this unhealthy food should be held responsible for the health of their customers.

McDonald’s global domination of the fast food market has caused some overweight people to sue the corporation in regards to their overweight problem. In response, McDonald’s in a press release from September of 2003, states that they have teamed up with Bob Greene, the personal trainer of Oprah, to promote their new PR campaign. Their exclusive partnership is designed to educate the public “about the importance of living a healthy, active lifestyle.” (McDonald’s press release pg 1). Ken Braun, McDonald’s Corp. VP says that “At McDonald’s we have a longstanding commitment to our customers, proven food quality and a strong social responsibility record. We are thrilled to partner with Bob Greene. He not only shares many of our same values and commitments, but he also is a strong leader in the campaign to promote healthy, happy active lifestyles” (1).

McDonald’s developed three key strategies to begin this transformation in the company. First, are the new items like Premium Salads and Fruit ‘n Yogurt Parfaits. Secondly is the education of the public by inspiring “people to take personal responsibility for their own wellness…” through brochures. Finally is the attention to athletic sponsorships and a new campaign called “Go Active”. This will help families further incorporate healthy activities into their lives. By creating these new programs and using Bob Greene, McDonald’s is using celebrity endorsement and other sneaky ad tactics to promote their product, while maintaining that it is up to the consumer to manage food intake in moderation with exercise.

In an article from the Journal Sentinel, McDonalds has already begun its “Go Active!” campaign. It has also launched a “marketing blitz to address health issues head on and tout new diet conscious options at its outlets.” In June McDonald’s plans to send out healthier Happy Meals, with optional replacements of fries with apple slices and juice, and promoting their new brochures offering the option to decrease calorie intake by skipping cheese or the bun. These changes in the McDonald’s corporation are similar to political advertisements as they subtly tell you what you want to hear while leaving out parts of the truth. In McDonald’s case the truth still remains that their food in excessive amounts is unhealthy for you. This is exactly what filmmaker Morgan Spurlock set out to prove.

“Morgan Spurlock, producer/director/guinea pig of Super Size Me, was sitting on the couch at his childhood home in West Virginia on Thanksgiving 2002, stuffed with turkey and all the fixings, when the concept behind Super Size Me came to him. ’I was so full and was watching the news when a story about the two girls suing McDonald’s came on the TV. I immediately called Scott (Ambrozy, Director of Photography) and told him the idea. When he finished laughing, he said ‘That’s a really great bad idea.’” (Spurlock)

Spurlocks’ film is a presentation of the effects of corporate America, advertising, and our own litigious society. We have become accustomed to being able to sue whoever we want, and our direct actions are rarely our own fault. Those who sue McDonald’s for making them fat, is the same as a cigarette smoker suing the big companies for getting cancer. The consumer is well aware of the consequences of their actions whether it be from cigarettes or fast food, and it is our own personal responsibility to take these things in moderation. In spite of all of the external influences, Americans should take it upon themselves to be responsible for their own experience and physical well-being. Whether we become chronically overweight due to excess fast food and periodically go on fad diets and “exercise” programs should not depend on the marketing campaigns of huge corporations and the social pressures they create but on common sense, education, and self-awareness.


Cited

Anderson, Robin and Lance Strate, eds. Critical Studies in Media Commercialism. New York: Oxford.

Carpenter, Dave. “McDonald’s makes healthy push.” Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.

McDonald’s press release. “McDonald’s Partners with America’s Best Selling Health and Fitness Expert, Bob Greene, on Healthy Living Campaign.”

Spurlock, Morgan. Super Size Me.

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