Last summer, while sitting in the dark waiting for the new Indiana Jones movie to begin, I was subjected to the new Kellogg's Special K 'See if you can get slimmer for summer' commercial (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qVGs3nWGvYk). Soundtracked by Ken Parker's sunny sing-a-long 'I Can't Hide', the 25-second advert shows a young woman looking at her holiday snaps. The camera zooms in to the photographs themselves, and we see the woman wearing a red swimsuit. Uncomfortable with her weight she tries to cover herself up by moving behind objects around her, by jumping in the pool etc. It's all very clever and very closely resembles the video for Fit But You Know It by The Streets.
As I happily guzzled the chocolate milk I had smuggled in to the cinema it suddenly dawned on me the very attractive woman in the advert - 5'10" American model Juliana Fine I have subsequently found out - wasn't actually overweight. In fact she had the kind of figure that makes other women green with envy and red-blooded heterosexual men do that unattractive leering face where their tongues loll out of their mouths. On top of this there seemed to be no difference in Fine's weight 'before' and 'after' she had taken the Special K summer challenge - that is two bowls a day for two weeks to see if you can get "slimmer for summer".
This not only seemed to be a blatant con trick, but by preying on women's all too often low self-esteem the advert has real social ramifications. For example, a 2004 Bliss magazine survey found the 2,000 teenage girls questioned had a shocking level of dissatisfaction with their own bodies, with 67 percent of respondents thinking they were overweight, while 19 percent of respondents actually were overweight. This disgust with their own bodies is no doubt the main reason two out of three girls under 13 questioned said they had already been on a diet and a quarter of 14-year olds said they had considered plastic surgery. The survey also gave a brief insight in to the relationship older women have with their bodies, with 90 percent of girls answering that their own mother had "an insecure body image".
So what did Kellogg's have to say for themselves?
After telling me they employ "a dedicated team of Dieticians and Nutritionists to ensure that all studies, formulations, marketing and advertising" of their products aligns with the "concrete principles" embedded within their corporate nutrition policy, Kellogg's explained Fine had a BMI (Body Mass Index) of 25.1. So yes, with a person labelled ‘overweight' if they have a BMI of 25 or above, Fine is technically overweight - by 0.1. But before you start chanting "who ate all the pies?" please bear in mind that Brad Pitt is also deemed overweight when measured by his BMI.
Kellogg‘s email waffled on: "Dramatic weight loss within the 2 week challenge period is neither expected nor advocated". This is why "the model shown in the ‘after' challenge shot may not appear significantly different." This seemed a little vague to me, so I asked Kellogg's to tell me 1) Fine's BMI in the 'after' shots and 2) the dates when the 'before' and 'after' shots were actually filmed.
After nearly two weeks of waiting for a reply, I received a curt email explaining Kellogg's "are unable to release any information on shooting times or the models BMI alteration in the aftershot". What exactly are Kellogg's hiding? Who's willing to bet me that for reasons of time and money the filming took place at the same time, and therefore unless Fine has the metabolism of a particularly active hummingbird it seems highly unlikely she lost any weight between the ‘before' and ‘after' shots?
Special K's 'See if you can get slimmer for summer' commercial is a perfect example of a corporation attempting to impose wildly unrealistic standards on women in an attempt to boost profits. If Fine needs to watch her figure, then so does virtually every women in the western world, and hey why don't you try some Special K with your insecurity, Ms? This faux-fatness seems to be an increasingly common phenomena, much like the portrayal of so-called ‘unattractive' women on TV - America Ferrera's Ugly Betty who isn't ugly at all, Julia Roberts playing the ugly duckling in the 2001 romedy American Sweethearts and ‘ugly' sister Toni Collette in the Hollywood drama In Her Shoes, who, I for one, find far more attractive than Cameron Diaz.
By filming a professional model using a product she doesn't actually need, Special K joins a huge beauty-based sub-section of the advertising industry. Think of the Clearasil commercials with the clear-skinned, confident teenagers narcissistically checking themselves out in the mirror, supermodel Claudia Schaffer fronting L'Oreal's Wrinkle De-Crease advertising campaign and Davina-bloody-McCall talking to her ‘Mum' on the phone about how great her bloody hair is. Along with Special K, these adverts often use pseudo-scientific jargon and (corporate sponsored?) 'experts' to hawk a product whose use leads to results that are either very difficult to quantify or completely non-existent. Does anymore really think Garnier Nutrisse being "enriched with fruit oils" make one bit of sodding difference to McCall's hair? If so, surely Garnier Nutrisse could clearly explain what it is, without relying on the razzle-dazzle of pseudo-scientific and meaningless language?
In contrast, Dove's ongoing ‘Campaign for Real Beauty' is often held up as a model of socially-conscious, women friendly advertising. According to the Communist.... sorry Dove Campaign Manifesto "real beauty comes in many shapes, sizes and ages" and therefore Dove, a subsidiary of the radical feminists at Unilever, aims to promote "a view of beauty that all women can own and enjoy everyday." In case you have been on Mars for the last few years, rather than using professional models, Dove's campaign features 'real' women of colour, women over 40 and women of varying weight - all happily frolicking in white bras and underwear, proud of their "real curves".
So far, so right on. But before you get excited and throw away your copy of The Beauty Myth, consider the main product Dove's ‘Campaign for Real Beauty' is selling: the Dove Firming range. "By combining the products in this range", the Dove website says, "your skin becomes noticeably firmer while the intensive firming gel-cream is even proven to reduce the appearance of cellulite." That's right folks, real women might have curves but flabby, unsightly cellulite - that's got to go. So while Dove's campaign has gone some way to broadening the definition of beauty, the basic message remains the same: Beauty is central to a woman's identity. And more importantly, women are not naturally beautiful, but are always in need of improvement which requires endless effort and the endless consumption of beauty products.
Arguably, despite the very real progress made by first, second and third wave feminism, the fixation on women's physical appearance today is greater than it has ever been. Just think of the popularity of shows such as Extreme Makeover, Ten Years Younger, Cosmetic Surgery Live and The Swan. Indeed, it is important to remember certain industries have a vested interest in increasing women's anxiety about their bodies and aggravating their low self-esteem. The list is long - the beauty industry, the diet industry, cosmetic surgeons, the fashion industry, advertising and women's magazines. This is not some kind of grand conspiracy against women, simply an attempt to maximise profits. In the year of its launch in 2004, the BBC reported the Campaign for Real Beauty ad campaign had boosted Dove's sales by a whopping 700 per cent.
This pursuit of the bottom dollar produces the tragically bizarre situation of products like Special K, and yes Dove too, being targeted primarily at women, professing to support women, but which are, in actual fact, running advertising campaigns that contribute to a culture that ultimately damages women's mental and physical health.
Ian Sinclair is a freelance writer based in