Falling In Love With Food

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Falling In Love With Food

“How bad do you want it?” asks an ad for macaroni and cheese, featuring an extreme close-up of the undeniably phallic pasta dripping off a fork. Just exactly what is going on here? This ad and others like it represent a relatively new trend in advertising—the sexualization of the product, and the promise that products will satisfy all of our needs (without the inconvenience and disappointment of relationships with people). Of course, love has often been a key selling point in food ads, but this is a new twist indeed.

Swallowing Disappointments

Food has long been advertised as a way for women both to demonstrate our love and to ensure its requital. 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 cakes and breakfast cereals and muffins she serves them. 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: “What to do for dinner after a long day of eating your words and swallowing your pride” says an ad for frozen chicken. “Got a big mouth?” asks an ad for caramel candies, “Put a soft chewy in it.”

Fill Up and Connect

Advertisers spend a lot of money on psychological research. They know that many people, especially women, use food to help deal with loneliness and disappointment and also as a way to connect.

The ads play on this: “You know that empty feeling you have when you’re watching what you eat?” asks a four-page ad featuring an empty dessert bowl on the first page. “Start filling up,” the ad continues on the following pages, which picture a variety of sugar-free puddings.

Advertisers often offer food as a way to relate romantically and sexually. A television commercial for a pasta sauce features a couple eating and gazing intensely at each other while “I don’t know why I love you like I do” plays in the background. “In the mood for something really intense?” asks the sexy female voice-over. The couple feed each other while the words “Unexpected… Intense… Bold” appear on screen. In the last shot, the woman is suggestively licking the man’s finger while the voice-over says, “You’re gonna love it.”

A Substitute for Love

These days, however, 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. “Watch TV with your arm around the one you love,” says an ad for Cheez-It. An ad for Hershey’s Kisses features a close-up of a chocolate kiss wrapped in dark foil with the copy, “Small, dark and handsome,” while an ad for Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts says, “Reunite your tongue with its first love.” After all, loving a candy bar is so uncomplicated (“Rekindle an old flame that’s all passion and no baggage,” says an ad for cookies) and so satisfying (“If you were any more satisfied, you’d blush,” says a yogurt ad).

Often food is shot in extreme close-up and is very sensually inviting, like the macaroni and cheese ad (right). “What you do in the dark is nobody else’s business,” says an ad featuring an erotic close-up 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.”

Instilling Shame in Food

When food is eroticized in this way, eating becomes a moral issue. The “good girl” today is the thin girl, the one who keeps her appetite for food (and power, sex and equality) under control. “I’m a girl who just can’t say no. I insist on dessert,” proclaims a thin woman in an ad for a sugar-free gelatin. “Respect yourself in the morning” is the slogan for a cereal bar campaign that features extremely thin women with “forbidden” food attached to their bodies. In one ad croissants bulge from a woman’s hips, while in another a frosted doughnut encircles her waist. If these women eat these foods, the message is clear that they will wake up in the morning filled with self-hatred and loathing of their bodies.

It used to be that women who couldn’t say no were talking about something other than food and that respecting oneself in the morning was code for abstaining from sex not from cinnamon buns. Nowadays it is our appetite for food that is most crucial to control. If a woman comes back from a weekend and says she was “bad,” we assume she broke her diet, not that she did something interesting sexually. The ménage a trois we are made to feel ashamed of is with Ben and Jerry.

A Basic Human Need Exploited

Food ads are often funny, clever, 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, 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.

By Jean Kilbourne
Reprinted with permission from Eating Disorders Recovery Today
Fall 2005 Volume 3, Number 4
©2005 Gürze Books

About the Author

Jean Kilbourne is the author of Can’t Buy My Love: How Advertising Changes the Way We Think and Feel and the creator of the award-winning Killing Us Softly film series. She is a Visiting Research Scholar at the Wellesley Centers for Women.

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