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Eyes on the Pries

I have deliberately steered away from discussion of food from the renegade viewpoint, mostly because it's too large of an issue to engage in these early days. That creates a frustrating paradox, because food as a consumer product is the one thing nearly all of us have in common, and there is just so much unethical and manipulative effort by the industry to examine.

However, food is scrutinized from so many viewpoints, including some that are in tune with renegade thought, that I am comfortable leaving the issue to itself for the time being. I will make my usual recommendation that renegade consumers interested in the overall problem of how food is marketed and shaped to control buyer choices - at the detriment of nutrition and consumer health - read Michael Moss's brilliant and groundbreaking Salt Sugar Fat (Random House, 2014).

Once in a while, though, the world serves up a hearty dish of food-related consumer idiocy so tasty and tempting I just have to notice and comment. In this case, it's the New York Times and their handling of two well-intended but peculiarly contradictory articles. (Links are provided but not guaranteed, as NYT content is behind a partial paywall.)

Captain Crunch box cover
The Captain says, "Buy me, kids!"

In the May 18, 2014 Sunday Review section, the lead article ("Always Hungry? Here's Why") is an intelligent examination of how nutrition research has again shown that food calories are not all equal, and that the body may process carbohydrate calories differently from fat calories. The issue is critical in understanding obesity because a vast number of processed foods, especially those seeking to shed fat numbers in the nutrition panel, use increasing amounts of sugars, starches and other carbs, especially highly processed ones. The gist of the article is that simple calorie-counting may be of little value if processed carbohydrates trick the body into handling hunger and fat storage differently from fat and protein.

The continuation of the article leads directly into another article on the practice of using faces and eyes as marketing images ("Psst. Look Over Here.") Recent studies have shown that product packaging with even cartoon approximations of a face, especially eyes that seem to be looking at the shopper, has strong buyer appeal. Facial recognition is a deeply-encoded ability in humans, so powerful that even infants and the nearly blind can perceive nuances of facial positioning and expression. It is unsurprising that the behavioral masters of marketing have learned to use this cognitive function as a tool to sell things. The article speaks in admiring terms about the marketing and branding industries' success at selling breakfast cereal using googly-eyed characters that appear to be looking directly at the shopper. The research being reported on, and the article, emphasize that these cereals are largely aimed at children, and that the cuddly, imploring characters are often positioned and drawn so as to be looking down at passing child-shopper eyes.

Lucky Charms box cover
Sir Charms says, "Aye, let's be good friends, lads and lassies!"

From the renegade perspective, there are two surprising things here. The first is that the Times could run the first article and then, beginning in literally the next column inch, follow with a second piece that seems oblivious to the issues raised by the first. Furthermore, that they could run one article damning the food industry for pushing cheap, bliss-hammering, obesity-fostering carbs from every grocery shelf... and then, in the next spatter of ink, actually laud the practice of selling these largely worthless, nutritionally-questionable products to children using a deeply embedded cognitive reaction. The "eyes" article concludes with a smarmy quote from a branding expert about how having a product 'look you in the eye' is the 'mark of a real friend.'

And there we have an example of what the renegade philosophy is all about — that we should not have to defend ourselves on a hindbrain level from being manipulated into buying a product that is somewhere between worthless and actively bad for us. Worse: that our children, without even the feeble acquired defenses of adults in the consumer arena, are the ones being enticed by cute, big-eyed cartoon characters to fill up on these crap foods.

The other surprising thing here is the timing of the research findings on which the latter article is based (along with quite a few other recent news and analysis articles). It is surprising, shocking, newsmaking information that marketing uses Mona Lisa eyes to sell products - especially to children, and by invoking a deeply-embedded cognitive response almost impossible to screen out or consciously control. Wow! Incredible! How awful!

Frosted Flakes box cover
Tony says, "Get mom to buy you a grrreat friend, kids!"

Now take one step back and switch on your renegade perceptions. This practice is not new. It was not invented last year. The research did not follow hard on the heels of the technique. We have had products, especially things like sugar-laden, pure-carb kids' cereals giving us the big puppy eyes for decades. Forty years? Fifty? At least. It has taken most of an adult life for researchers to catch on to this deeply manipulative, highly effective practice and make a public accounting of it... but the manufacturers knew it. The marketers, branders and package designers knew it. We've been strongly influenced to buy a crap product — a product most parents know is health-impinging crap — in part because of this subtle, powerful, secret-in-plain-sight manipulation.

Think about that a while. If you haven't yet fully grasped the renegade position that we are all manipulated at our basest levels by some of the most sophisticated behavioral analysis, manipulation and engineering in existence, that such manipulation completely surrounds... envelops... smothers us, and that it takes place on levels even a wary adult cannot easily resist (or even perceive)... this is a good moment to complete your grasp. If you disbelieve that such manipulation exists or has any power over "smart" consumers, time to read the linked articles and then again this commentary, and think it over. If you are among those who active reject the notion that marketing manipulation has any power beyond simple, obvious tricks that fool only the stupid, the unwary and the gullible... open your eyes.

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