Diet Culture

To Keep You Looking Good: What Kellogg's Diet Advertisements Tell Us About Diet Culture

12 minutes to read
Martijn Logtenberg

“1906: W.K. Kellogg opened the "Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company"" (Kellogg’s, n.d.). This marks the start of the company Kellogg’s, a company that would grow to reach 180 markets worldwide selling a variety of foods for breakfast, lunch, and snacks (Bhasin, 2018).

Since the start, Kellogg’s has been introducing and advertising diet products such as Safe Fat Reducer in 1920. In 1955, Kellogg’s even introduced a brand focused on diet products: Special K. The company has produced multifold television advertisements for Special K ever since. Through my analysis of nine representative advertisements, I will discuss what these diet advertisements tell us, which norms they build upon, and if they are harmful.

An analysis of Kellogg’s advertisements might yield relevant insights because Kellogg’s has been around for a long time. Hence, we can expose developments in their diet advertisements over time. On top of that, Kellogg’s diet advertisements — specifically Special K advertisements — primarily target women. This last point is important since body ideal differs between genders. This is visible, for example, in the distribution of eating disorders in the Netherlands, where 95% of people suffering from anorexia nervosa are female (Novarum, 2022).

Sociocultural norms are thought to have a large role here. They prescribe the female ideal to be (extremely) thin building upon three biases (Jutel, 2005):

  1. We think our visual sense and appearance are very important.
  2. We think someone’s character is linked to appearance (e.g. ‘You become what you eat’). Especially female beauty has been historically linked to moral values.
  3. We think this moral value is linked with thinness, for example, because it portrays devotion or health.

Academics have called this the compulsory thinness norm (e.g. Bacon, 2016, pp. 204-211). Media contribute to this norm by repeatedly exposing it.

Repeated exposure to the message of compulsory thinness, leads to the internalization of this ideal. Internalization occurs when you are aware of (passive endorsement) and agree with this norm (active attitude), and therefore apply it to yourself (Cafri, 2005). This often means a devaluation of your social identity because you do not have the prescribed body (Pearl & Puhl, 2018; Striegel-Moore & Bulik, 2007). Experiencing this gap between your current body and the norm — and striving to fill it — is problematic when the ideal is unrealistic or unhealthy (Bessenoff, 2006). In the case of compulsory thinness, it often is.

What Kellogg’s Tells Us?

Throughout all advertisements, Kellogg’s features thin and able-bodied women. In this article, I describe how these women portray consciousness about the compulsory thinness norm and how Kellogg’s, consequently, tells us that by complying with this norm, you either gain benefits or prevent harm.

Being Fat Decreases Your Femininity

As we can read in both Dark’s ‘Becoming Travolta’ (Dark, 2014) and Rice’s ‘Becoming the fat girl’ (Rice, 2007), fat women testify about experiencing stigma targeting their gender identity. Fat women are framed as the Other, denying their femininity. Note here that the role of the social environment — where others elicit comparison with them — is rather large (Vartanian, 2012). Dark (2014) describes this herself: “Ask anyone who grew up as a fat girl if she ever got the female lead with thinner girly girls around. I’d put money on the answer being no. […] We didn’t even discuss it — that’s just the way it was. Someone had to be Travolta and it was going to be me.”

Fat women are framed as ‘the Other’, denying their femininity

This framing of non-thinness or fatness has been around for a long time, as we can see in Kellogg’s Safe Fat Reducer advertisement, published in 1920. Looking closer, we can see the fat woman is illustrated with a mustache. Kellogg’s uses the feminine ideal of compulsory thinness in a way that stigmatizes the femininity of those who do not comply with this ideal.

Kellogg’s Safe Fat Reducer advertisement

Being Thin Is The Same As Looking Good

Even though such explicit stigmatizing illustrations seem to be a thing of the past, a more recent Kellogg’s advertisement tells us that a woman only looks good if she is thin. In Special K’s Tight Pants advertisement (Kellogg’s, 1996) the narrator tells us that "part of having a great look is keeping it". The woman supposedly does this through dieting with Special K. On top of that, the advertisement uses the slogan "Special K, to keep you looking good". Here' Kellogg’s portrays beauty as a function of thinness.

Kellogg’s advertisements portray beauty as a function of thinness

Similarly, Kellogg’s uses our natural aim for social approval and anxiety for social disapproval. This is clearly visible in Kellogg's advertisements. For example in Special K’s Two-Week Challenge advertisement (Kellogg’s, 2012b), a young woman is dancing at her wedding. We hear her brother-in-law explaining that she felt “shy to dance, ever since she put on a little weight”, ending with “today she is making everybody dance". This implies that losing weight means she does not have to feel shy anymore. Another example is Special K’s ‘New Year Challenge’ advertisement (Kellogg’s, 2013). Here, the narrator tells us, “to keep that Wow factor and the compliments coming”, you need Special K. Kellogg's. It explicitly builds on top of mechanisms of social approvement in order to promote diet products.

Active women in ‘Powering You’ advertisement

In its most recent advertisement, Powering You (Kellogg's, 2018), Special K changes this function of thinness to result in empowerment by shifting the focus to being active rather than reinforcing to lose weight. Since being active may be a choice for every woman, this supposedly empowers women to become active and buy Special K, which is an attempt to relate to the femvertising trend. Femvertising is a way for brands to advertise their product by breaking conventional stereotypes and empowering women.

However, it remains questionable which stereotypes Special K is challenging here. The advertisement still only includes thin, active, and able-bodied women, implying you can only be empowered if you are thin. Hence, Kellogg’s keeps its marketable stereotypes in place.

Being Thin Means Having No Fat

By default, Kellogg’s engages with diet culture since they have the incentive to reinforce it: They sell Special K because people participate in a culture of dieting. This is exactly why the mere existence of Kellogg’s and its diet advertisements reinforces this culture. On top of that, Kellogg’s reinforces it to an unhealthy extent, for example in Special K’s Drop a Jean Size advertisement (Kellogg’s, 2004a) which prescribes eating three meals a day, two of which are based on Special K and containing only 318 calories. Another example is Special K’s Pinch An Inch advertisement (Kellogg’s, 1984). This advertisement tells us that when you are able to pinch an inch of body fat, you should try dieting. This reinforces the idea that any body fat is a sufficient reason to act since an inch can be pinched with almost no body fat present.

Both examples work stigmatizing and are potentially harmful, as they norm low-calorie dieting or extreme thinness. This is exactly what diet culture entails. Harrison (2018) characterizes diet culture as worshipping thinness as healthy and promoting unsustainable dieting while demonizing alternative habits and oppressing those who do not comply.

Kellogg's 'Pinch an Inch' advertisement

Being Thin Is Easy

Building upon a narrative of individual responsibility, Kellogg’s often portrays dieting as something that an individual can easily do. They then judge those failing to comply as unhealthy. This already implies the problematic assumption that health and thinness are synonymous. But even if you accept this, it reinforces weight stigmatization and blaming, which at the very least is an ineffective mechanism to motivate a healthier lifestyle (Puhl & Heuer, 2010).

Women struggling with their weight in Special K advertisements

For example, in one Special K advertisement (Drop A Jean Size), the narrator blames the main character for failing to lose weight. Here, the main character is shown struggling to put on her jeans, while the narrator ridicules her by asking: “Had a very merry Christmas?” (Kellogg’s, 2004a).
Similarly in another advertisement (Weigh In), the main character is struggling with her weight. The narrator states that “surely, there must be a simpler way”. The narrator also suggests the main character only needs to “exercise gently, and of course, eat sensibly” (Kellogg’s, 2004b).

Accordingly, women ought to watch themselves or act as if they were watched. Advertisers promote this idea of female self-surveillance (Giovanelli & Ostertag, 2009). This has an effect, as we can see gender impacts the perceptions of normal portion sizes or the healthiness of food (Chaiken & Pliner, 1987; Herman & Polivy, 2005). One study even showed the feeling of hunger was subordinate to societal norms on normal portion sizes (Herman & Polivy, 2005).

This reinforces weight stigmatisation and blaming, which at the very least is an ineffective mechanism to motivate a healthier lifestyle

Kellogg’s does the same by setting norms for portion sizes (Drop A Jean Size; Kellogg’s, 2004a), abstaining from showing eating women, but also by using terms such as indulgence snacks in their advertising (Whoops; Kellogg’s, 2012a). The use of the word indulgence, here, is implying a lack of modesty (i.e. surely, this woman can buy a Special K bar instead of indulging).

Being Thin As Identity

Beyond stigmatizing when you have some body fat or lack modesty, stigmatization just as well occurs towards thin women through objectification.  Objectification happens when norms promote others to objectify and sexualize. Being objectified means a woman experiences being seen as simply her body (Fredrickson & Roberts, 1997). There are two sides to this coin.

Firstly, this objectification leads to the body and your identity becoming synonymous. Since the start of diet advertising, this has been drawn upon. We can see this, in the first advertisement, through Kellogg's use of “You Are Fat” and “He Will Reduce You”. Both refer to a part of the person’s identity that ‘is fat’ or ‘needs to be reduced’.

Secondly, Kellogg’s appeals to sexualization. For example in Special K’s Pinch an Inch advertisement (Kellogg’s, 1984), men wear covering clothes while women are displayed with less clothing; for instance by showing them in bikinis, or by letting a belly dancer perform in one of the advertisements. Furthermore, the advertisement shows a female police agent being pinched by a male police agent. This is an explicit example of objectification since the woman is judged on her body by a man.
A more recent example is given by Special K’s Whoops advertisement (Kellogg's, 2012a). Here, a woman loses her bathing suit while swimming. The woman, subsequently, puts on her swimsuit again, while portraying a sense of confidence. The advertisement ends with: "See you by the pool". This implies that women need to strive forward to this sexualized ideal woman to gain the same amount of confidence or that the sexualization in itself is something to be confident about.

This implies that women need to strive forward to this sexualized ideal woman to gain the same amount of confidence or that the sexualization in itself is something to be confident about

'Whoops’ advertisement showing a woman losing her swimsuit

Why We Should Care

Kellogg’s advertisements have been telling us, in order of historic trajectory, that women can only be feminine, pretty, happy, confident, or active once they are thin. We can see its impact along two axes: stigmatization and an internalized discrepancy between the way female bodies currently look and the extreme feminine ideal.

Kellogg’s advertisements have been telling us that women can only be feminine, pretty, happy, confident or active once they are thin

As you may have recognized, I have used these two effects a lot over the course of my article. Reinforcing such norms is far from harmless. They have been widely recognized in the academic literature to cause body dissatisfaction, deteriorated self-esteem, harmful weight loss behaviors, fat shaming, mental health problems, and depression (Bessenoff, 2006; Clay et al., 2005; Schaefer & Thompson, 2018). Advertisers contributing to this discourse — including Kellogg's — are far from blameless for the harm this exact same discourse does.


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