Jean Kilbourne, EdD
Food has long been advertised as a way for women both to demonstrate love and to ensure itsrequital. Countless television commercials feature a woman trying to get her husband and children to love her or just to pay attention to her via the foods she serves them. “Bake a Comstock pie,” one ad says, “They’ll love you for it.” “Skip the Zip on my little girl’s sandwich and give up one of her bear hugs? Not in her lifetime,” says a mother hugging her daughter in a mayonnaise ad. The implication, of course, is that the child won’t hug her mother unless she gets the right kind of mayonnaise on her sandwich. As always, the heartfelt connection, the warm relationship, is simply a device to sell something— even our children’s love is contingent upon our buying the right product.
Very few ads feature women being given food by men or even by other women. More often, when a woman is being fed, she is feeding herself. A television commercial for candy features a series of vignettes in which what a woman does for others (such as making a costume for her daughter) is ignored and unappreciated. At the end of each vignette, the woman pops a piece of candy in her mouth and says, “I thank me very much with Andy’s Candies.”
In these commercials, the woman not only rewards herself, she also copes with her disappointment at being unappreciated. Advertisers often offer food as a way to repress anger, resentment, and hurt feelings. For example, one ad features the empty foil wrappings of 12 pieces of candy with statements beneath them: “I didn’t sleep late,” “I didn’t call him,” “I didn’t buy it,” “I didn’t put off the laundry,” “I didn’t get upset,” and “I didn’t skip gym,” ending with “He called.” It is interesting that this ad includes so many ways in which people escape from difficulties with relationships (shopping, sleeping, watching television) and yet encourages one of the most common escape routes of all: overeating. I am especially struck by “I didn’t get upset.” Sometimes getting upset is the healthiest and most appropriate response. Certainly, it is better to get upset than to numb one’s feelings with an overdose of chocolate. Better for us, that is, not better for candy manufacturers.
One of my favorite ads of all time ran in the early 1980s in many women’s magazines. It showed a close-up of a woman’s face. She was smiling very seductively, and the copy said, “Whatever you’re giving him tonight, he’ll enjoy it more with rice.” As I said to my audiences at the time, “I don’t think I’m particularly naive, but I haven’t figured out what the hell you do with rice.” “Maybe it’s wild rice,” someone suggested. Another woman called out, “Let’s just hope it isn’t Minute Rice.” The 21st-century version of using sex to sell rice is much more explicit, of course: an ad for Uncle Ben’s rice shows a woman feeding a man a forkful of rice by candlelight. The copy says, “Passion Lesson #13. From now on every night would be different… filled with endless variety.”
Of course, we are not stupid. We don’t for a minute believe that we’re actually going to improve our relationships with rice or pasta sauce. But these ads do contribute to a cultural climate in which relationships are constantly trivialized and we are encouraged to connect via consumption. An obsession with food interferes with real relationships just as any other obsession does, yet food advertising often normalizes and glamorizes such an obsession. We are not only offered connection via the product, we are offered connection with the product. Food becomes the lover.“Rich, impeccable taste and not an ounce of fat. Wow, if only I could find a guy like that,” says a woman holding a candy bar. “Looking for a light cheesy relationship?” asks an ad for macaroni and cheese, which concludes with a shot of the package and the copy, “Oh, baby, where have you been all my life?”
Often, food is shot in extreme close-up and is very sensually inviting. “Bet this little lite will turn you on,” says an ad that features a very suggestive close-up of the inside of a candy bar. Another ad featuring a fudgsicle oozing its chocolate filling is headlined, “Introducing our deep, dark secret,” and an ad for a cereal bar says, “Trapped inside this wholesome rolled oats crust is a sultry little French pastry struggling to get out.” A hilarious ad for sour cream features a baked potato begging for the sour cream’s touch: “Please… please… you’re driving me wild.”
Food ads are often funny, clever, and highly entertaining. But food that is heavily advertised is seldom nourishing and rarely deeply satisfying. Often, it is sold in a way that exploits and trivializes our very basic human need for love and connection. It is wonderful to celebrate food, to delight in it. Food can nourish us and bring us joy, but it cannot love us, it cannot fill us up emotionally. If we turn to food as a substitute for human connection, we turn away from that which could fill up the emptiness we sometimes feel inside: authentic, mutual, satisfying relationships with other human beings. And when people use food as a way to numb painful feelings, as a way to cope with a sense of inner emptiness, and as a substitute for human relationships, for living fully, many of them end up with eating problems that can destroy them and that certainly, ironically, destroy any pleasure they might get from food.
This article is excerpted from Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight the Addictive Power of Advertising. New York: Free Press, Simon & Schuster, 1999.
Jean Kilbourne, EdD, is internationally recognized for her pioneering work on media messages. For more information, please visit her website, http://www.jeankilbourne.com.