Dr. Pepper, ‘Man Food’ and gendering the diet industry


I suppose I should actually thank Dr. Pepper.  Diet soda is one of those things I know is crummy for me, that it’s full of chemicals that will turn my innards into kimchi, yet I have a hard time resisting anyway.  I mean, sometimes I’m feeling a bit tired and I need a little kick in the pants but without the mega empty-calorie dump of a full-sugar soda, and so I cave into the faux-sweet siren song of Coke Zero or Diet Dr. Pepper.

Well, maybe now it will just be Coke Zero, as I have a hard time giving my money to corporations that say their products are NOT FOR WOMEN:

Dudes don’t drink diet.

Or at least that’s the idea behind Dr Pepper Ten, a 10-calorie soft drink Dr Pepper Snapple Group is rolling out on Monday with a macho ad campaign that proclaims “It’s not for women.”

That’s right, everyone.  Diet soda is for PUSSIES, but not Dr. Pepper Ten!  Dr. Pepper Ten is for MEN.  MANLY MEN, who like GUNS and BULLETS and LASERS.  (I wonder if those lasers are on sharks’ heads?)  I should let B know, as he is the one who introduced me to Diet Dr. Pepper.  He may be curious to know he’s been indulging in a drink that is totally for WUSSES.

Now, an argument can be made that Dr. Pepper is really just spoofing ads aimed at men that go into hypermasculine overdrive, which is what Anna North at Jezebel points out:

The writers of the ad seem aware of the silliness of their premise; at one point, the manly-man protagonist looks straight at the camera and says, “Catchphrase!” It’s possible that the entire thing is a sophisticated joke about the dumbness of ads aimed at men, and the gendering of consumer products in general.

But if this is satire – and it very well could be – then it fails.  Autumn argues over at the Beheld, while writing about the winner of American Apparel’s plus-size model contest, that for satire to work, it must be obviously over-the-top:

But the method being used here too closely mimics the very thing that’s being critiqued. That’s how satire works, but in order for satire to be effective there needs to be an element of the ludicrous.

How can the ad campaign for Dr. Pepper Ten be any more ludicrous than, say, Nutrisystem’s “Man Food” campaign?  You remember that, don’t you?  In those ads, guys like Chris Berman talk about losing weight while eating “man food,” like pot roast and hamburgers and other red meat-heavy dishes.  It’s enough to make you wonder whether the creatives behind the campaign used Carol J. Adam’s “The Sexual Politics of Meat” as a how-to guide.

There’s a whole discussion to be had over the gendering of food, the way vegetables and salad are seen as women’s food, while beef is seen as a man’s thing.  (You should see the confused looks B and I get when we go out to eat, and the server puts his salad down in front of me, and my cheeseburger down in front of him.)  But what really grabs my attention about they way diet products are marketed to men is just how aggressively masculine those campaigns are.

The marketers know dieting is generally associated with women, that things like caring about one’s weight are things only women are supposed to do.  And really, as longevity studies have regularly found, men tend to be really crappy about taking preventative care of their health.  (BTW I do not mean to conflate “weight loss” with “good health.” I’m simply trying to make the point that caring for one’s body has often been considered “women’s work.”)

But – and you can practically see the bean-counting at work here – the diet industry is a multi-billion dollar money-maker!  If they could only find a way to increase their market share by making inroads with men, they could double their already-obscene profits!

But they know they have to do it carefully.  They can’t appeal to the desire of men to maintain their “girlish figures,” for instance.  They don’t want to feminize men too much, so they overcompensate with aggressive ad campaigns and marketing and branding.  We see the same thing with the newly-unfolding world of men’s personal care products, and the struggles marketers have faced as they try to reconcile “woman things” like body wash with their desired audience of men.

But why is dieting seen as a feminized pursuit?  I like the way Feminist Fatale summarizes centures of history when addressing this:

Food as an expression of gender has been around for centuries.

Victorian women were urged not to be seen eating by their mothers because eating led to defecation and women didn’t have and still shouldn’t have bodily functions.  Furthermore, food and the act of eating is sensual, physical and pleasurable.  The Victorian women was not supposed to be sexual, sensual or carnal.  If she did eat, she should steer clear of “heat-inducing” foods such as spices, caffeine and…meat.

Self-denial is part and parcel of a culture that says to be a woman is to be willing to sacrifice yourself to everyone who asks it of you.  Women are expected to sacrifice all for children, husbands, strangers on the street, and they are expected to do so with grace and kindness at all times, and to never ask for anything in return.  Our allowed indulgences are small – pieces of chocolate, yogurt flavored like cheesecake.

This just isn’t part of the culture for men.  This is not to say that men don’t sacrifice – they do, and in big ways.  But they are allowed to expect things in return.  They are not expected to deny themselves at all times.  They are allowed to embrace pleasure and indulgence without guilt.  Pleasure and indulgence are seen as rewards for hard work, which is the way it should be for everyone, yes?

There’s no room for the self-denial espoused by the dieting industry in this definition of masculinity.  And so you end up with overcompensation in the form of gunmetal-gray packaging and hot chicks in bikinis and diet plans that include meat loaf – all of which can be read as assurances that your decision to embrace this “woman’s thing” doesn’t necessarily mean you are any less of a man.

The fact that Dr. Pepper may be satirizing this trend with its “He Man Woman Haters Club” campaign is a moot point.  The fact is, these are actual ad campaign strategies that are employed in the real world, with the goal of influencing us (and our purchasing decisions) on a subconscious level.  Considering how much of our world is saturated in advertising, we would do well to approach all of it with a critical eye.  We need to be aware of just what exactly is being sold to us, because we are getting more than diet soda and meal plans in this deal.

6 responses to “Dr. Pepper, ‘Man Food’ and gendering the diet industry

  1. Eeexcellent post.

    I think this is a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too situation— an attempt to win some consumers with semi-satire AND the others with face-value ad copy. Remember Carls Jr.’s ads featuring a scantily clad woman posing on all fours on top of a shiny car while eating a huge cheeseburger? This allowed Carls Jr. to “mock” the blatant selling of sex WHILE doing it themselves. Also, it prevented me from ever entering a Carls Jr. again, though I was no major loss to them.

    Whatever their motivations, I hate this ad campaign. Predictably. =)

    FUN FACT: You and Carol J. Adams are neighbors in my Google Reader! Ha!

    • Wow, such illustrious company! 🙂

      Your point is so apt, how they want to get the ironic “wink-nudge” points while getting the benefits of that kind of advertising as well. It’s like they know intellectually how ridiculous all of this gendered crap is, but they still secretly really like it and don’t want to let it go.

      • “It’s like they know intellectually how ridiculous all of this gendered crap is, but they still secretly really like it and don’t want to let it go.”

        You know, I think that’s a fair description of the way most people feel. Familiarity sometimes trumps progress.

      • For sure. What’s the saying, better the devil you know than the one you don’t? Where this falls apart for me is when I consider that the “devil we know” is one that contributes to systematic dehumanization of one another, and I’m not sure what could be worse than that. I also recognize that not everyone sees it that way.

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