Tuesday, 29 January 2019

Be afraid. Be very afraid....

January is the season for widespread dietary hectoring, coaxing and coercion, but this year, the anticipated spate of anti-sugar (and by extension, anti-obesity) promotions have taken an unpleasant turn, actively mobilising the fear of food as a strategy for controlling consumption. There are two prime campaigns for this. Firstly, at the beginning of 2019, the publicly-funded Change4Life launched an anti-sugar ad which directly invokes sugar as fearful, invading the home and threatening children.

The ad summons monstrous and angry-faced sugar cubes, bursting out of boxes of cereal and other snacks and drinks to the horror of the plasticine children. It is a profoundly gendered vision of risk management, and while the father figure bravely puts himself between his children and the rampaging cubes while swiping at them with a pan, we are reassured that "Mum's got an easy way to cut back on sugar" and restore order to chaos. We see her returning from the shops to the scene of kitchen mayhem, laden with bags full of 'smart swaps' which then enable them to drive the troublesome sugar cubes out of the kitchen. The burden of responsibility on women to manage family consumption and health is unmistakeable.

The demonic cubes are also the anti-heroes of this 'sugar swaps' ad from the same January campaign, this time transported into a (male-appearing) body made entirely of sugar cubes to illustrate threats to dental health, body size and health. In this ad, sugar literally constitutes the body, and it deploys the familiar discursive strategy of accumulation to emphasise overconsumption - an extra 8 cubes a day of dietary sugar, we are told, equates to 2800 extra cubes annually; or as the Daily Mail reported at the beginning of January, British children consume 22 stone of sugar before the age of 10 - a deliberate use of a unit typically used to measure body weight (in the UK) to reinforce presumed links between obesity and sugar, as well as offering up an anxiety-provoking vision of excess (even though the consumption over 10 years of any common food would look pretty shocking).

And then, along came Veg Power, whose stated goal is to get people, and particularly children, to eat more vegetables. Anti-sugar / anti-obesity campaigner and celebrity chef, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall is a key player in the campaign, and towards the end of January, Veg Power launched a crowd-funded ad campaign called "Eat Them to Defeat Them", including a TV ad, as well as in-supermarket materials and promotions.

No matter how many times I watch the ad, I find it bafflingly ill-conceived and frankly quite disturbing. Using familiar motifs from horror genres, we see a woman in a car, suddenly surprised by a single, anthropomorphised pea, angry and threatening, announcing its arrival with a creepy "Yoohooo!". The pea is then joined by a torrent of equally enraged companions which rain down on the car and inundate the terrified woman inside. This is followed by an apocalyptic, post-industrial scene with veg missiles raining down on terrified and injured people, while a melodramatic voiceover tells us that adults have been leading the fight to defeat veg (which are trying to take over the world), but that they can't do it alone. The scene then shifts to a series of children determinedly shouting at vegetables that they're 'going down', before biting, snapping, crunching and blending them into submission.

I can only assume that the ad is trying to move away from (historically unsuccessful) attempts to persuade children of the deliciousness / nutritiousness of vegetables as a means of getting them to increase their consumption. But what sense does it make to figure vegetables as terrifying and threatening? Is a war on food the only option left open to us? It also betrays a highly contradictory understanding of the effects of advertising. The Veg Power website declares that children are bombarded with food and drink advertising, only 1.2% of which is for vegetables. This complaint presumes that advertising food products to children is effective in straightforwardly hypodermic ways - that we see and absorb those messages directly and without mediation / critical engagement. So why, then, advertise vegetables as threatening? The arguments against the advertising of processed foods are set aside by this ad, with the recognition that pleasure and taste are central to the impactfulness of ads. To address a key obsession of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, the sales success of 'checkout chocolate' is because we want to eat chocolate; advertising in isolation doesn't make us do anything. And so, a different strategy is required for what we don't so easily want. I think that the Veg Power ad recognises this, but without any revision to its foundational premise about the dangers of advertising.

There are two (related) dimensions to these ads that I think are especially worrying. Firstly, they both emphasise the need for constant vigilance - either against the insidious presence of sugar in the home, or in the need to control vegetables by continuously eating them. (And presumably this latter is ironic to some extent and is a play on other public health messages, but the demand for vigilance without reprieve remains). This figures food as a prime site of risk management and personal responsibility; there is no space here to consider here who has access to what foods, for example. This need for constant vigilance is also evident in recent reporting of plans to introduce calculations of the amount of sugar in different foods into maths and English lessons to give children the skills to monitor and control their intake more effectively.  Ironically, this was a space commonly occupied by fruit (John has 3 apples...), but no opportunity can be left unexploited for anti-sugar didacticism. And following on from this, the second disturbing dimension of these ads is that food is not only a site for vigilance is also a source of active threat and danger. Food emerges not as nourishing, delicious, social and necessary, or even mundane, but rather as something to be feared.

I find it hard to see how this can be anything other than harmful to children (or adults, for that matter). Fear of food is a hallmark of eating disorders, and while I would never want to suggest a direct causative relationship between any advertising and eating disorders (as is often assumed in commentaries on images of very slim (usually) women), the active encouragement of eating disordered thinking, especially among children, is profoundly disturbing. And finally, it's important to remember that in November 2018, UN rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Philip Alston, issued an excoriating report about the impact of austerity in the UK, which has seen poverty and skyrocket. Reports about hungry school children , and the travesty of holiday hunger are now mundane news features, with an estimated 4 million people forced to use foodbanks to survive - outcomes that the report criticises as deliberate political choices.

However well-intentioned these campaigns are, teaching children to be afraid of food in a social and cultural context that refuses to feed hungry children exemplifies the heartlessness of our current government and the distractive power of the attack on sugar to avoid talking about one of the most pressing issues of our times.

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