Monday, May 24, 2010

Free Will v. Junk Food

When it comes to junk food, do we have free will? Not exactly.

On my recent greenwashing post, my friend and former collaborator (and former human rabbit) Jay raised an interesting question. He wrote:

"Their patrons [Pepsico] don't have to buy that stuff. Maybe organic is tough to get, but it's still not that hard to eat cheap and healthy. As you know, I'm a fat guy who really should stop eating the stuff Pepsico puts out, but I'm not going to blame them for my problems or try to shut them down."

Clearly, Jay is a model citizen. He knows the risks, he takes them, and he blames no one but himself for doing so. You can tell that he's not the kind of guy to make his fortune by suing over hot coffee burns.

But not everyone is Jay. For instance, Jay is very, very smart. He went to college: I know, I was there. And that means he acquired certain skills, such as analytic thinking, as well as funneling, that not everyone has the chance to develop.

If you're getting ready to accuse me of saying that poor people are stupid and need the government to hold their hands and tell them what to eat, relax, and then consider joining the Tea Party (notice willful omission of hyperlink). But what I am saying is that there's a fight going on for your mind -- and therefore your money -- and it's not always a fair one.

Odds are Pepsico is trying harder to influence your decisions than you are trying to resist them, and that's a battle that you're going to lose unless you're actively on the offensive. Junk food companies spend millions each year to dupe you into thinking that their products won't kill you, which they will. They create entertaining marketing campaigns, fund bogus studies and hire lobbyists. Can you still think straight despite their effort to manipulate you into thinking that their products are anything but dangerous?

Yes, but it helps if, like Jay, you have a college degree.

Could you eat healthily without going to college? Of course, but most of the statistics that I've seen generally link education with higher income, better health and living somewhere with access to fresh fruits and vegetables, i.e. in an arugula oasis rather than a food desert. In other words, much of the population is at a disadvantage when it comes to resisting Funyuns.

Perhaps the most damming evidence of this being a unfair fight is new talk about the addictiveness of junk food comparing it to hard drugs like cocaine. And let's not forget that Coca-Cola, a junk food, once contained actual cocaine.

Would we let a company market a potentially lethal product that's as hard to quit as a drug to our children? We don't let cigarette companies advertise on TV, so I'm inclined to think not. Yet turn on Saturday morning cartoons and there's Chester Cheetah, pushing his salty, brightly colored, crunchy dope.

Of course I do believe in free will, even when it comes to junk food, and if someone lifts a soda to their lips, it's their choice to do so. But do you still have free will if you're hypnotized?

You are getting very sleepy... have a Pepsi!

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Andrew Slack said...

Amazing post. I think Jay has a point - there is always free will and I think you're right: with more education the capacity to exercise that free will in this kind of scenario often expands. with However, I think it's different than how most of us conceive of it. And I think that when I eat junk it's a complex set of reasons that drives me to do so - including my own free will. But also it involves the way things are marketed.

Jay said...

Mmmmm...salty, brightly colored, crunchy dope.

I'm glad I was able to help you stir up an intriguing post (even if you did attack advertising, which you well know is my occupation!).

I'd also like to clarify that I am neither of those frat boys pictured in the funneling link.

Perhaps Aaron has a picture of me drinking from a box-of-wine winesack?

aprildawn said...

growing up in a fairly poor southern area, i couldn't agree more with this post. where i grew up, you could get eggs from your back yard, and walk right down the road to get cheap, fresh veggies from the farmer that lived next door...but still, people buy the their stuff at walmart...and honestly, it's simple ignorance. i see it every time i go back home...yeah, there are certain things that people just know are bad for them, but then there are other things (like sugary cereals) that people are actually convinced by decent marketing campaigns that they are good for their kids to eat (big G cereal's website is "" and "" and have you seen the new ads???!). i've also seen the larger companies doing their part to scare people away from buying from local farmers, with accusations of contamination, etc. it's kind of absurd (and i didn't go to college).
we DO have free will...of course we do, but if there isn't proper education to back up that free will, then it's useless. Big G is telling you to feed your kids sugary cereals because they have a minute amount of whole grains in them...if you live in an impoverished area, you have MUCH bigger problems to worry about than whether or not they really have your best interests at heart.

ugh. i could go on and on. thanks for the post.

Anonymous said...

My grandmother had RJR stock, and she took it very badly when I made comments about their marketing strategies--said people had a choice, yada yada. I told her that if I sold her chocolate chip cookies and they made her fat, maybe that was mostly on her, but that if I advertised aggressively to children AND put heroin in my cookies, the story was a little different. And it is. It still is.


Japanese knotweed said...

I completely agree great post!

I think people are relying too much nowadays on others to tell them what to eat, why to eat, however everyone knows the dangers of junk food and others understand that in small quantities no harm is really done on your body.

marketing may have an effect on children and some adults however its the same thing as someone asking you to jump off a cliff...its not good for you...:)

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