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It’s Time to Confront the Scourge of Capitalism in the Food System

The deadliest ingredient in our food is capitalism itself.

Mr. Peanut joins other Kraft Heinz mascots in Times Square for the kick-off event of the 'Feed Your Family, Feed The World' program, on April 27, 2017, in New York City. (Photo: Jason Kempin / Getty Images for Kraft Heinz)

In December, the Kraft Heinz Company launched a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign in response to “prolonged negative perceptions” about the health risk associated with its products. Between 2014 and 2016, Kraft Heinz’s net income fell by an astounding 24 percent, due in no small part to concerns about the corporation’s nutritional record. Kraft’s new “Family Greatly” campaign attempts to dissuade parents from substituting Kraft classics for more nutritious alternatives. Ostensibly, it enjoins parents to cut themselves some well-deserved slack, by reminding them “nobody’s perfect.” The predatory character of this advertising campaign should come as no surprise given that it has been administered by the Leo Burnett Co. advertising house of the creator of both Marlboro Man and Ronald McDonald, the originator behind both “lifestyle advertising” and “lifestyle diseases.” While much ink has been spilled critiquing the likes of Burnett (see the work of Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky, Adbusters and Juliet Schor), his advertising model has only grown stronger and more perverse over the decades. Therefore, a restatement of old critiques will not be enough to consign predatory advertising to the dustbin of history. The “silent ingredient in our food system” — capitalism — must be reintroduced into the food discourse, according to Eric Holt-Giménez’s A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism. Only then will steps be taken to remedy the structural causes of predatory advertising.

The Recrudescence of Marlboro Man

One of the most despised figures in advertising — the Marlboro Man — stands for deceit, depravity and the callousness of Corporate America. But when he first trotted onto the nation’s TV screens, the Marlboro Man symbolized something that even the staunchest anti-capitalist is for: hope. For the men of 1950s suburbia, working 9-to-5 jobs and engaging in the regimented rituals of family life, the Marlboro Man was a vicarious glimpse into the free and unencumbered life of the fictional “Great American Cowboy.” Marlboro Man turned each cigarette into a time machine — a tiny escape pod that could jettison the loyal Marlboro smoker from his soul-crushing suburban existence into a daydream of sweet sea breezes and roaring open plains: a few moments of freedom for scarcely a few dollars per pack. No wonder they sold like wildfire.

Kraft’s new “Family Greatly” campaign is essentially a modern rendition of Marlboro Man. But while it retains the fundamental appeal to vicarious escape, what is being escaped from is different, and the escape route has changed as well. At the heart of the campaign is a rather dubiously administered in-house study, which finds that 80 percent of parents surveyed feel pressure to be perfect, yet almost 80 percent of children that participated prefer parents who aren’t. The implication, of course, is that parents should cut themselves some slack, since by the only measure that really counts in the end, the children’s measure, they’re doing a splendid job as is. Images of teary-eyed parents embracing their fawning children to string quartets and cascading keys help tease out this inference. Just as the Marlboro Man ads presented an escape from the regimented rigmarole of suburban life in the 1950s, the Family Greatly campaign presents an escape from the intensely one-sided, unattainably perfectionist character of 21st Century parenting.

Sentimental as notions of freedom and family are, both Marlboro Man and Family Greatly are, in the end, about as warmhearted as a cold-blooded cobra. The Marlboro Man showed suburbia’s disenfranchised what was beyond their reach, not what they could strive for. The message was not “live a meaningful life,” it was “smoke two packs a day and forget you have a meaningless life.” In much the same way, Family Greatly doesn’t tell parents what they can do to “family greatly,” it tells them what they must not do if they wish to have intimate, sincere relationships with their children — they must not stop serving up that good ‘ol mac-n-cheese, because if they do, then they’re trying too hard, and missing out on the little moments that make a strong parent-child bond.

However, of course, a diet composed mostly of mac-n-cheese doesn’t give families more time together; it takes time away by endangering children’s health. Echoes of Margaret Thatcher’s “There is No Alternative,” reverberate with the Family Greatly campaign. Marlboro Man may have been slain, but it appears that his legacy of using people’s existential heartaches against them, has survived.

Battle for the Plates of the People

While predatory advertising seems more entrenched than ever, there is a silver lining in the fact that Kraft has not undertaken its campaign from a position of strength but rather one of weakness. Changing public perceptions about Kraft reflect a nutritional awakening at the national level. Between 2004 and 2014, the number of Google searches for “fruits and vegetables” nearly doubled, and there has been a concomitant increase (76 percent) in the number of farmers markets registered with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). An unprecedented 80 percent of North Americans surveyed, are now willing to pay premiums for healthier foods. Parents have been particularly vocal (they are referred to as “cadres” and “fanatics” in marketing journals). A recent study found that 80 percent of parents questioned were concerned about the health of their children, and 91 percent supported at least one serving of fruit with every school meal. Parents are seeing the casualties of the corporate food regime in front of their eyes, and they fear their own children will be next. To reassure them — or rather, silence them — advertisers like Leo Burnett Co. have engineered licentiously deceptive ruses that attempt to turn the very love parents feel for their children against their struggle for a healthier future.

Rather than cater to demands for healthier meals, the corporate food regime has redirected billions into advertising. Kraft tripled its advertising expenditures (between 2014 and 2016), spending upwards of $700 million in some years. But Kraft isn’t the only one. Between 2009 and 2012, fast-food advertising expenditures in the US as a whole increased by 8 percent, reaching an eye-watering $4.6 billion in 2012. That year, McDonalds alone spent more on advertising than all fruit and vegetable producers did, combined. But fast food only accounts for about a third of net advertising. The total advertising bill in 2002 was a staggering $12.7 billion — most of which promoted fast food, processed snacks and soft drinks. This level of spending made possible an exposure rate of 10 food ads per hour of TV watched in 2002. By 2009, that figure had increased to 12.7 per hour.

Many have seen these food advertisements for what they are — attempts to silence inconvenient consumer preferences, and mold the citizen into an unremitting consumer — and have mounted a resistance in response. Adbusters has released a series of “spoof ads” targeting fast-food ads (McDonalds in particular) as part of their “culture jamming” activist strategy. The UK’s Committee of Advertising Practice banned junk food advertising across children’s media, including online and social media, in December of 2016. Across the pond, KFC was forced to pull ads that claimed that “fried chicken can in fact, be part of a healthy diet” in 2004.

Capitalism: The Secret Ingredient

Why must food producers buck consumer preferences in the first place? Why not just provide the healthy foods people demand? Why spend more than $10 billion a year trying to convince them to continue eating unhealthily? Consider that the US’s 7 billion livestock animals consume five times as much grain as the entire US population. What would happen if Americans suddenly took drastic health measures and cut their meat consumption in half? Where would the grain that once fed the now-redundant livestock go? Latin America is still sore about NAFTA and the corn dump. The biofuels industry seems to be far less keen on corn, now that the dirtiness of corn production has become public knowledge. If there is no market, prices have to fall, and when prices fall, farmers increase production rather than decrease it, as we saw in the Dust Bowl. Why? According to Holt-Giménez’s A Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism, it’s to keep up with the interest payments on the loans they took out to finance the huge fixed costs associated with starting up a farm in the capitalist system. Of course, because all farmers are increasing their production at the same time, the glut is exacerbated and prices fall even further. When corn becomes so cheap, it isn’t even worth transporting to the cities, it ends up “rott[ing] in silos in the countryside” while the urbanites go hungry, Holt-Giménez writes.

Advertising is capital’s bulwark against such crises of over-accumulation. It keeps demand for overproduced commodities high enough to keep the food system solvent, quarter to quarter. So vital is advertising to the soundness of the food system that the state actively subsidizes it. The USDA’s checkoff program, a mandatory pooling program that consolidates funds from across the food industry, reinvests $750 million per year into marketing and research for commodities covered by the program (more if you count the multiplier effect). Checkoff dollars fund some odious efforts, like the push to promote Domino’s Wisconsin pizza, which has almost twice as much cheese as the regular Domino’s pizza. Another example is the egg checkoff’s illegal involvement in the egg industry’s lawsuit against Hampton Creek, producer of the non-egg based mayonnaise, “Just Mayo.” In addition to these direct subsidies, the USDA provides an indirect subsidy in the form of protection from negative advertising. For instance, in 2009, at the height of the H1N1 “swine-flu” outbreak, USDA Secretary General Tom Vilsack had the term “swine flu” dropped from national news broadcasts because it could hurt pork sales, saving the hog industry hundreds of millions in lost sales and food-safety lawsuits. Throw on an annual $80 million tax subsidy, along with favorable access to foreign markets, and you have just enough demand to keep the system solvent for another quarter.

But “solvent” isn’t “successful.” Cheese is the number one source of saturated fat in the Standard American Diet (SAD), and Americans are already eating more than twice the daily recommended amount. Egg, the key ingredient in mayonnaise, is the most concentrated source of cholesterol in the SAD, and as of 2015, 71 million Americans had high cholesterol. A non-egg mayonnaise is something to be welcomed onto supermarket shelves, not attacked in a multimillion-dollar lawsuit. By boosting demand for unhealthy foods, the checkoff program increases annual health care costs by $7.8 billion, and that number is rising, according to D.R. Simon’s Meatonomics. Similarly, the tax subsidy for food advertisers has cost us about $352 million in extraneous health care costs and a staggering 4,538 quality life years lost each year since its inception. As Khalid M. Alkharfy presciently puts it, “We are obviously being conditioned to look at food as an entertainment.” Sometimes, the emergence of large-scale hyper-stimulating forms of entertainment signal a society in decline: Think gladiator games in Rome before the fall.

The Necessity of a Systemic Critique

Lifestyle advertising has encouraged the proliferation of lifestyle diseases. The existential heartaches of ordinary people have been exploited by advertisers like Leo Burnett Co. to market lethal products like cigarettes and fast food. Rather than cater to consumer demands for nutritious foods, Kraft and other food conglomerates have stepped up, and in some cases tripled, advertising expenditures in order to “re-educate” consumers. In response, parents and consumers have organized and won major political victories, initially in Europe, but increasingly in the United States as well. As encouraging as these signs are, a lasting solution to the epidemic of malnutrition and the cultural annihilation wrought by predatory advertising will need to address the systemic contradictions inherent in the capitalist food system. Without access to the means of production, farmers will continue to be straddled with interest payments which force them to increase production in response to price declines, ultimately reproducing chronic oversupply and creating the raison d’être for licentious advertising ala Leo Burnett Co.

To counter the recrudescence of despicable characters like the Marlboro Man — and the senseless suffering they create — concerned parents, food activists, minimalists, consumer protection activists and cultural critics, along with any other interest group concerned about the pernicious effects of dissolute advertising on ordinary people’s lives, need to set their sights on the structural flaws of the food system. Let the recrudescence of Marlboro Man be matched by a recrudescence of structural critiques of the food system that get to the heart of the problem. As Holt-Giménez presciently puts it, “If you don’t set the menu, you’re on the menu.”

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