Imagine you and your family are sitting down at a restaurant. You order the establishment’s signature entrée and are treated to 1/3 pound of grade-B beef which has been fried and covered with watery ketchup, bitter mustard, and bits of what may generously be called “onions.” Surely this would be unacceptable at a quality restaurant. Continue on this imaginary evening, and think about taking your family to see a show at the local theater. You are sitting in your seats enjoying the performance, but every seven minutes the curtain falls and a very enthusiastic man shouts from the stage how much better your life would be if only you would go out and buy this-or-that product. No one in their right mind would sit through that, yet we seem perfectly willing to accept low-end food, poorly-made goods, and underhanded selling tactics as long as we are able to buy said merchandise quickly, cheaply and conveniently. Since their inception, fast food, advertisements, and “big box” retail have had several deleterious effects on American health and culture.
Fast food, while often expedient, is unhealthy. It is common knowledge now that most (if not all) of the food served via drive-through window contains frighteningly high levels of sodium, carbohydrates and cholesterol. In his Tufts University article “Who’s Losing the Burger Battle?” Irwin Rosenberg lists the caloric content in several fast food chains’ premium sandwiches. Hardee’s Six-Dollar Burger contains 890 calories, Burger King’s Steakhouse XT Burger weighs in with 970, and Denny’s Western Burger sits atop the greasy mountain with a staggering 1160 calories. Just to clarify, these measurements do not account for French fries, beverages or extra condiments. Awareness of the health risks associated with fast food is certainly more widespread than it used to be, but according to David Hogan’s article “Fast Food,” books and articles about the high-fat, low-quality products used by fast food establishments have been printed since the 1930s (Hogan, 565). In addition to providing a nightmarish dietary staple, fast food restaurants can also widen the gap between us consumers and the source of our food. The food itself is rarely memorable or special to us. It appears before us fully formed, an instantly-available placeholder for what we should be eating. In “Feeding Our Future,” Michael Ableman suggests that more people ought to eat “whole food-food that tastes better because it’s grown in living soil and harvested locally, food that makes clear the relationship between human health and the health of the Earth” (Ableman, 563). It seems that the only redeeming value to be found in fast food is its eponymous speed. I recently visited a particular sandwich shop and was mightily impressed when I was able to order, pay, and receive my food in literally less than three minutes. Of course, the brevity and ease of my experience did little to assuage the gastrointestinal distress I later suffered because of the oil and fat inherent in convenient comestibles. Fast food, however, is not the only example of the health and cultural sacrifices we make for the sake of convenience.
Big box retail stores have negative impacts on the individual and the community. From the moment you walk through the sliding glass doors and step onto the linoleum or concrete tiles of your local Walmart (or Target, or K-Mart, as the case may be) you may start to instantly disconnect from the world around you. Personally, I often feel like I’m in a strange sort of bubble when I shop at mass retail outlets. The other shoppers are just ghosts pushing squeaky-wheeled phantom carts down the aisles into the fluorescently-lit void. Going into the store late at night creates even more of an isolated feeling. In their article “Walmart: Everyday Low Prices,” Peter Singer and Jim Mason cite a recent report that claims Walmart employs 1.6 million people (Singer & Mason, 588), yet with the advent of self-checkout and the sheer size of most of their stores, it is possible to literally spend hours shopping and not encounter another person. This creates what I consider to be an inhospitable shopping environment not only because of the eerie lonely feeling it can produce, but also because with no employees around, receiving customer service is impossible. Judging by their ubiquitous signs, banners and slogans, Walmart seems to take much pride in being an American company offering American goods but on closer inspection, their patriotism seems questionable at best. According to Singer and Mason, in 1993 Walmart sold clothes which they claimed were manufactured in the USA but, as was revealed later, were made by child workers in Bangladesh (Singer & Mason, 590). Walmart continues to maintain their low prices by selling goods that are mostly of international origin. Singer and Mason state that in 2005, Walmart spent $18 billion on Chinese products (Singer & Mason, 590). Can there be any doubt that Walmart is partially responsible for America’s dependence on foreign wares? In their PBS article “Is Walmart Good for America?” Hendrick Smith and Rick Young state that nearly 80 percent of Walmart’s 6000 suppliers are located in China. Furthermore, the advertising for these and other goods and services can cause harm to consumers.
Advertising can hurt potential buyers in ways that may not be obvious. Subliminal messages, which have been a mainstay of television advertising for decades, can affect peoples’ thoughts and moods about a product, which seems to me like an infringement on free will. It was once thought that subliminal advertisements were just an urban myth, but according to a Discovery News article called “Subliminal Messages Work, at Least Sometimes”, evidence now exists that our decisions can be influenced by suggestions we receive unconsciously. One of the best examples that I have seen of this advertising tactic is a Chevrolet commercial from 1959. It features a happy couple singing about the wondrous new automobile arriving in showrooms throughout the nation and, if you pause the video at exactly the right frame, it is possible to glimpse images of the car with a very attractive couple inside. A more modern example of subliminal advertising is during a commercial for KFC’s Snacker sandwich. The ad shows a very enticing picture of the sandwich while an announcer talks about what a great value it is. By looking very closely during the last second or two of the ad you can clearly see a dollar bill in the sandwich’s lettuce. Of course, advertising can also influence people to buy more expensive items without using subliminal messages. Simply by using pleasant, appealing images and slogans, advertisements can promote the idea that a certain brand is superior to its competitors even if no such superiority exists. This emphasis on product labels is far from new. In “The Marlboro Man,” James Twitchell quotes 1940s advertising guru David Ogilvy as saying that if consumers were given a drink of Old Crow and told it was Jack Daniels, they would enjoy it more than if they knew it was Old Crow (Twitchell, 472). For a more modern perspective, consider Craig Nicholson’s article “Great Expectations,” from the February, 2008 issue of Nature Reviews Neuroscience which recounts a study involving “Volunteers [who] were given various wines to sample, two of which were presented twice with wildly different price tags. The volunteers reported greater enjoyment [...] when they believed them to be expensive…” (Nicholson, 163). It seems that, as much as our society has progressed in the last 50 years, we are still tasting images. Why is this a problem? Because when we emphasize status symbols like brand names, I believe we are prone to make very poor decisions about how to spend our money. Advertising also seems to be a contributing factor in our ever-shortening attention span. As viewers get used to having information presented in smaller and smaller bits, advertising must try and keep pace. In his New York Times Article “Advertising,” Stuart Elliot says that when television was a brand-new medium advertisements were usually around one minute in length, but by 1971 the average length was only 30 seconds and in 2005, Cadillac unveiled the first 5-second commercial (Elliot, New York Times 04/2005). It seems like this trend is likely to continue.
It is ironic that as our society becomes more complex, we strive harder for simplicity. We want everything in life to be as quick and as easy as possible but if all gratification becomes instant, I fear that we will forget the satisfaction that comes from working (or at least waiting) for what we desire. We will lose appreciation for the effort put into creating the goods that we use every day. In the short time they have existed, advertising, mass retail and fast food have already had such a negative impact on our health and culture. Imagine the impact they will have in decades to come.