Your junk food preference is probably not an addiction

Peep diorama by Melissa Harvey, featured in the Washington Post

Peep diorama by Melissa Harvey, featured in the Washington Post


At Table Matters last week, I wrote about  complicated relationships to the simple pleasures of junk food, arguing that the way we so often frame these foods as “addictive” erases the complexity of our interactions with and decision-making about food. This is not to comment on actual food addiction diagnoses or research; I’m talking about a casual, conversational reference to addiction, a sort of widely accepted hyperbole that many people make even though they are not all addicted to junk food. It’s a way of distancing oneself from the reasons we choose to eat junk food–some of which are quite reasonable reasons, such as quick energy, quick satisfaction, and cultural customs of sharing chips, popcorn, or candy as social bonding.

This morning, HuffPost Food posted a tidy illustration of that glossy cultural narrative. Titled  “10 Junk Food Slogans to Blame Your Addiction On,” this morning’s post featured a slideshow of snack food ads that “use finely-tuned slogans to get you addicted to products that aren’t really good for you,” according to the blurb.  The trope of addiction provides a catchy title and a pitch that’s easy to latch onto, since it fits neatly into the kinds of conversations we already have casually about junk food. But however jokingly, it also casts the junk food producers as the primary actors in this exchange: presumably, junk food eaters are just being taken for a ride by slick advertising and addictive substances. The captions to the slideshow images, meant to be snappy and humorous, repeat the trope that when junk food ads call, consumers are helpless to refuse.

But that’s not really how advertising works, is it? Advertising is not an exact science–it’s more magic, really, depending on clusters of associations and repetitions, and then there’s little certainty of how the market will react.  Let’s take the Pringles slogan for example. Say you’re a kid, and you see a commercial featuring other kids–dressed in a manner considered “cool” for the era–who are drumming on Pringles cans and chanting “Once you pop, you can’t stop.”  (This is one from my memory.) You might make the association between Pringles and cool kids having fun. But the slogan is unlikely to function as a command: it’s unlikely that you find yourself immediately searching for a can to pop, unless you already had one in the pantry and just remember that you’re hungry. It’s not a subliminal message, either: next time you’re eating Pringles, you will not find yourself hypnotically eating one after the other–or, perhaps more accurately, you will not find yourself eating this way unless you have both the inclination and the opportunity (as we’re not supposed to eat this way in front of each other). But the tune is catchy and will get stuck in your head, and you’ll see the commercial aired during every one of your favorite shows. Then you go to school, and perhaps some other kids are drumming on Pringles cans and chanting the slogan. This echo effect reminds you of Pringles again and again; you know what they are, and next time you’re looking to buy a snack, it may well be that Pringles come to mind.

But here is where human variation steps in and tangles everything up. You’re packing your lunch for school, and you have the option to pack a snack-size Pringles can or some other snack. Will you choose Pringles? Probably, if the other option are those unmemorable corn chips that your dad likes; if Pringles is the higher-status food, you’ll take it. If it’s a food you particularly like and there are no other options you like better, you’ll take it. But suppose the kids at school are repeating the Pringles tagline in order to make fun of it, not because it’s catchy? (The line between cheesy and catchy is very delicate, especially among the young.) Then you won’t be caught dead with Pringles, even if you like them, because then the kids will be making fun of you. Or, perhaps all the kids at school are eating Pringles, but you yourself won’t bring them, because you’re afraid someone will take them, or because you’re a chubby kid who will be bullied for eating the same things everyone else eats. Maybe everyone sees these Pringles commercials, but no one buys them because you’re in New Orleans and you’re snacking on Cheewees and hot pickles instead. Maybe you like the tagline, but you’re a Frito-Lays person to the core. (Despite parroting the Almost Home Cookies commercial ad nauseum, I have no memory of actually eating them.) These marketing misfires aren’t exceptional; they just offer a random sampling of the myriad ways people, even impressionable young people, make decisions concerning food.

tl;dr? Okay. A few concise reasons that I dislike like the use of addiction as a quasi-humorous shorthand for eating (and liking!) junk:

  • It crowds out other interesting, meaningful conversations about high fat, high sugar, and/or highly processed foods.
  • It casts junk food as “bad” food, “dangerous” food. Cheetos are morally neutral, y’all. They might make you feel good if you eat a little or bad if you eat a lot, but they do not make you a sinner or a saint. (Fat Nutritionist has more, much better said.)
  • It erases the decision-making of the eater, whether we’re brushing off our own love of Cheetos with self-deprecation or gravely condemning the junk food addictions of Other People.
  • When we talk about the junk food habits of Other People in a way that depicts these Other People as thoughtless, addicted eating machines, that’s dehumanizing. And elitist. Because let’s be honest, when we worry about the junk food habits of Other People, we usually mean Fat People or Poor People or High School Kids, right? And it suits us to think of these groups of people as being unable to make decisions for themselves, just as it suits us to jokingly cast our own entirely human desires as uncontrollable urges.

Next time you find yourself wanting a whole bag of chips or another slice of cake: eat it or don’t eat it, but own it.

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