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A Conspicuous Lack of Consumption

30 October 2008 4,058 Views 2 Comments author: Kiera Chapman
Is that a Magnum in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

Is that a Magnum in your pocket or are you just pleased to see me?

Every year around May, Walls ice cream endeavour to persuade the British public that, despite black skies and torrential rain, it is actually summer and therefore time to consume large quantities of frozen dessert.

This year, the face of their Magnum campaign is the immaculately coiffed Eva Longoria Parker (5’2”/ 24” W/ 32”B).  She smoulders against a warm chocolate background, limbs artfully arranged at an impossibly uncomfortable angle, wearing a black silk dress carefully selected to walk the tightrope between sexy and classy and couturier cut to emphasize her tiny waist (24”!).  She clutches the ice cream determinedly, the glitter of a massive engagement rock on her delicate left hand offset by the one tiny chunk of yellow vanilla that’s visible beneath the barest and most ladylike of nibbles. She is supposed to be the woman who “has it all”: designer clothes, a designer body, and a designer boyfriend.  The master sign of her empowerment is the phallic ice-cream she’s grasping.  Her relationship to it is carefully ambiguous, balanced with precarious post-feminist precision.  Is she appropriating the commodity and lending it her star status?  Or is the ice cream yet another of the material signs that signals her specialness?   Further, is the chocolate giving her pleasure, or is she pleasuring it?

The advert’s illogicality is daring.  In Longoria’s hands, the ice cream looks about as convincing as the microphone clasped by a lip-synching chanteuse.  Yet there’s not even the slightest attempt to hide the obvious disjunction between her famous physique (5’2”/ 24” W/ 32” B!) and the Magnum’s nutritional composition (260 cal/26.7g carb/15.5g fat).   Because she’s not just a size 0 – oh no! that would be positively plebeian! – she’s a 00 – a super-special size only reachable by a stratospherically successful starlet. When she recently gained weight, reaching the positively porcine proportions of an ordinary size 0, the celebrity media hyperventilated their way to hundreds of headlines.  Was she unwell?  Pregnant?  Desperately unhappy?  Poor Longoria (now 5’2”/ 25” W/ 34”C) was forced to release a statement that she was actually method acting, gaining weight in order to look more ordinary.  Like an  overworked housewife, in fact.  The whole inch she put onto her waist was actually a sign of her Very Serious Dedication To Her Craft.

Since the dawn of civilization, food has had a symbolic value above and beyond its physiological purpose.  However, the Magnum ad is a good example of a wider cultural trend: we have reached the point where we have all but lost the sense of a connection between food and energy, replacing it with an association between food and emotional states.  Twenty years ago, a lot of food advertising still endeavoured to connect with the idea that food had a physiological purpose to sustain the vital processes needed to maintain life.  Pleasure featured, but in balance with other qualities.  For instance, in 80s Britain, the slogan for the nation’s favourite chocolate bar read “A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play”.  There was a materialism about food, in a moral, philosophical and physiological sense; a connection between calorific value and social and cultural capital.  Of course, this link was still highly aspirational: food was fuel that helped you battle in the boardroom, claw your way to the contract and run the victorious race, but all of those things depended on energy.  In 2002, however, Mars decided to ditch its slogan, replacing it with the supremely hedonistic “Pleasure you can’t measure”.  A spokeswoman for the marketing department explained the shift, arguing that the voracious female chocaholic was excluded from the previous campaign because “The images of energy and accomplishment have a male bias” (1).  Apparently feminism does not apply to food, so to convince women, the new slogan broke the connection between eating and energy, replacing it with a touchy-feely sentimental relationship between food and the consuming body.

Now the ordinary female consumer is bombarded with images that associate food and self worth.  Eating is all about emotional states: food can be a reward for accomplishment, or a consolation for a bad day.  “It’ll help you kick ass in that meeting” has been replaced with “You’re worth it!”.  The open acknowledgement of health issues in earlier campaigns (“Naughty but nice!” as a tagline for cream cakes) has given way to a vision of food as a purely hedonic, individualistic sex substitute on a plate, capable of compensating for everything from a bad marriage to bitchy colleagues.  Microwave food is no longer lauded for its quickness and convenience, but marketed as a gourmet choice. A recent campaign for M&S food salivated over images of ready meals, with a purring female voiceover explaining the virtues of adjectivally-overburdened meals from “handprepared turkey with Braeburn apple and sage stuffing wrapped in maple cured bacon” to “Lincolnshire red cabbage with apple and red cranberries slow braised in red wine and tawny port sauce”.  The tagline, inevitably, was “It’s not just food.”  Eating has become a kind of escapism, a fantasy, a therapy, a way of coping in an atomized, secular society with childhood trauma, teenage anxiety and adult neurosis.  It bridges back to the comforting securities of childhood and its simplified moral logic of treats and deprivations.  As a direct consequence, dietary philosophies which defy the basic laws of physics are booming (2).

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