This happy ice-cream imbiber appeared in a pro-sugar ad that appeared in the May 10, 1971, issue of TIME Magazine. Below this photo, the ad helpfully suggested: “Enjoy an ice cream cone shortly before lunch.” Then the ad launched into some positively Orwellian copy about the glorious benefits sugar can provide you, the
unwitting dupe thoughtful “consumer”:
Sugar can be the willpower you need to undereat.
When you’re hungry, it usually means your energy’s down.
By eating something with sugar in it, you can get your energy up fast.
In fact, sugar is the fastest energy food around.
And when your energy’s up, there’s a good chance you’ll have the willpower to undereat at mealtime.
How’s that for a sweet idea?
Sugar … only 18 calories per teaspoon, and it’s all energy.
Beyond the sketchy grammar — can sugar “be the willpower”? — this seems like a case of Fear and Loathing on Madison Avenue. And this was no one-off, but part of a concerted campaign in the 1960s and ’70s. It is a real life example of the kind of advertising insanity skewered in the great and cheekily-titled 1989 British black comedy, How to Get Ahead in Advertising.
Here’s another sugar ad, from 1970, that appeared in National Geographic magazine, complete with a helpful “diet hint”:
We have come a long way since the days when the sugar industry could so blatantly advertise the lie of sugar’s “nutritional value.” Yet most people still consume way too much of this stuff, often without even being aware of it.
Meth is death, but sugar swings?
Here’s another great vintage sugar ad, from 1966. Here sugar is being marketed as legalized speed — Mary “needs energyless, artificially sweetened foods and beverages like a turtle needs a seat belt”:
The “Note to Mothers” in the box is especially disturbing. It plays on a mother’s desire to protect her children from harm (the “bugs and ailments that are always lying in wait”) by suggesting they feed their tots a substance that could kill them in the long run:
Note to Mothers:
Exhaustion may be dangerous — especially to children who haven’t learned to avoid it by pacing themselves. Exhaustion opens the door a little wider to the bugs and ailments that are always lying in wait. Sugar puts back energy fast — offsets exhaustion. Synthetic sweetners put nothing back. Energy is the first requirement of life. Play safe with your young ones — make sure they get sugar every day.
Make sure they get sugar every day! Music to every kid’s ears, for sure. This is the legacy of the “Mad Men” era that is nostalgically celebrated today.
A spoonful of advertising makes the sugar go down
Here are more vintage sugar ads, from which I’ve excerpted the following grains of pure, Orwellian gold:
- Are you getting enough sugar to keep your weight down?
- Sugar can be the willpower you need to undereat.
- YOU NEED SUGAR
- Lisa needs a sugarless, energy-less soft drink like a kangaroo needs a baby buggy.
- SUGAR — a Builder of the West
- Tommy needs a sugarless, powerless soft drink like a moose needs a hatrack.
- Sugar puts the musclepower in sweetness.
- Judy needs a sugarless, go-less soft drink like a kangaroo… [you already know the rest — this copywriter got lazy]
- How sugar helps the weight you lose stay lost
- Why do they put sugar in the pickle jar? It’s not just to sweeten the pickles. Recent experiments show that sugar brings out the natural flavor. Pickles taste “picklier,” fruit tastes “fruitier,” even soup tastes brighter. Next time you make vegetable soup, add a little sugar and see for yourself.
Note the terrifying, “recent experiments show” — like something out of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab. They might as well throw in “turns blue to show it’s working. Or is it just the consumer who turns blue? Clearly, Johnny needs flaccid, sugarless pickles like a wombat needs….
These ads, by the way, were “Published in the interest of better nutrition by SUGAR INFORMATION, INC. a non-profit organization.” Let’s get this “organization” a seat at the corner table with the rest of “The MOD Squad” (“Merchants of Death”) in Thank You for Smoking.
The copywriting is priceless, and I find especially fascinating all the strange, mash-up word coinages: energyless (which is “energy-less” in another ad), undereat, musclepower, and the especially awkward hyphenate, “go-less.” The ads feel as though their creators were definitely hopped-up (“hoppedup”) on a superpowerful, energypacked magicalnectar — i.e. sugary soft drinks.
As a counter example, Sami Inkinen and Meredith Loring are currently rowing across the Pacific Ocean to raise money and awareness in the fight against sugar. They call their project, brilliantly, Fat Chance Row, which both mocks the hubris required to row all the way across the ocean, as well as being a forum for “chewing the fat” about obesity-causing sugar. Brilliant.
This reminds me of another use of “fat chance” in a title, playing off the word “chance” as indeterminacy in the work of John Cage: Bruce Nauman’s installations, Mapping the Studio I (Fat Chance John Cage) and Mapping the Studio II with color shift, flip, flop & flip/flop (Fat Chance John Cage), 2001.
What are the odds that after a half century, “Big Sugar” is chastened out of existence? Fat chance.