Can you survive four weeks eating only food advertised on TV?
Twenty years after its first broadcast I can still recite every word to the advert for Kellogg’s Pop-Tarts. “Put ’em in your toaster, they pop out hot… Four great flavours and they’re waiting for you.” I remember the immediate, frenzied parental petition these lyrics induced (“For God’s sake start the car,” my 10-year-old self would have shrieked, scrambling from the couch, “they’re waiting”) and though I’ve grown older and marginally less naive, I’ve retained a worrying susceptibility to food advertised on TV.
About the time everyone with a palate was decrying the arrival of Cheestrings on UK shelves, I was cruising the aisles for my sixth or seventh multipack: there had been a great drum’n’bass-themed ad. I bought into Yakult after a 30-second promo, and didn’t shake the subsequent bottle-a-day habit for months. I have found myself at the end of far too many noodle pots and novelty yoghurts – anything, really, advertised in the danger hour before dinner, and when I think about watching TV through the last fertile decade, I think not just of Big Brotheror The Office or The West Wing, but of being expertly flogged chocolate oranges by Dawn French, and choosing domestic beef on the say-so of an animated Ian Botham.
What would happen (I wondered, sipping Yorkshire Tea but having my eye turned, between Midsomer Murders segments, by Johnny Vegas hawking PG Tips) if I consumed only food and drink that was advertised on television? Would it be fun, or miserable? I had a reasonably balanced diet, and I did my best to eat five-a-day – would that still be possible? Would I cry off before the month was out, or would I hardly notice the difference?
In discussion with the editors of Observer Food Monthly, ground rules were established. The food would have to have been advertised within the four weeks of the experiment. The supermarkets, block-advertisers of a dozen products at a time, would be ignored. I would be assessed byOFM‘s expert nutritionist, Dr John Briffa, to explore the effects both physical and psychological. I’d stick with it as long as I could. I might even enjoy it.
I started one evening with the remains of a bon-voyage salad in my system and having just visited Dr Briffa in his consulting room at a London hospital. There I had told him about what I usually ate – coffee in the morning, sandwich and fruit for lunch, something like salmon or pasta or fish fingers for dinner – and he’d given my diet six out of 10 for general healthiness. He’d noted that I was slim, that at 29 I had “age on my side”, and that whatever damage I did to myself ought not to be long-lasting.
“It won’t be like Morgan Spurlock,” Briffa had told me (and let’s, here, pay quick homage to that pioneering experimental dieter who, in 2004, spent a month eating only McDonalds to make the documentary Supersize Me). “Spurlock ate much too much carbohydrate, and I think he was messed up for some time afterwards.” I’d have access to a better variety, Briffa and I agreed, even if there would be a lot of unhealthy food. “Physically I think you’ll be back on your feet quickly. The effects, if any, will be mental.”
For dinner I had bought a bag of Florette salad, a carton of Tropicana, and a “big favourites” bucket from Kentucky Fried Chicken. A pot of Yoplait awaited me for dessert (flogged to me during Loose Women) and after that, if I had room, a tube of Trebor soft fruits (Dragons’ Den Ireland). I nibbled on a drumstick and even as the grease dribbled down my chin, fancied I’d constructed a reasonably balanced meal.
It was not a feeling that lasted, the next few days dominated, like the first, by fast foods and novelty yoghurts – an unavoidable presence on our screens. I ate a new chicken sandwich from McDonald’s, advertised by a trio of dancing painter-decorators, and an Activia variety recommended by Martine McCutcheon; a barbecue sauce-laden Burger King burger followed by a tub of Ski. There was a lot of pizza, too: a stuffed-crust number from Domino’s and a freezer-to-oven variety, “Europe’s favourite” made by Doctor Oetker.
The pizza was a tactical move. Some 60 hours in I’d noted first signs of slowing down mentally – afternoons harder to work through, getting out of bed more of an undertaking. I’d decided the greasy stuff-in-a-bun was to blame, and that pizzas would be better. After all, weren’t those pureed tomatoes atop each slice? Real mushrooms and greens?
Briffa was horrified. “If you’d asked me to design a food that was going to totally mess up your ability to think or work I’d say: yeah, eat a pizza.” He talked of compounds called gluteomorphins in the wheaty dough and casomorphins in the cheese, both of which “basically have a drug-like effect on the brain”.
What about the rest of my first week’s diet? I pointed out, meekly, that whenever I ordered a McDonald’s happy meal I had been opting for the little bag of fruit over fries. “You’re probably getting something beneficial from that,” he said. “Because if you have a poor diet, just a little bit of nourishment can go a significant distance.” He gave me the example of 18th-century sailors, who warded off scurvy by eating half a lime a day.
Mention of scurvy sent me reeling back to the TV schedules. It was time to widen the search: late-night Sky Atlantic and early-morning Channel 5, teenager fare on Channel 4 and primetime tat on ITV. I began, incrementally, to gather a more diverse shopping list. A few days later an Old El Paso make-your-own-fajita kit (The Sopranos) went down well when I cooked it for my girlfriend at home; a pouch of microwavable Uncle Ben’s (Hollyoaks) less so, but dinner was partially salvaged by two cheering bowls of Crunchy Nut (Daybreak) and a bag of Maltesers (Corrie).
Didn’t Birds Eye used to advertise frozen peas, though? Wasn’t there a time when celebrity tennis players pushed bananas? A daily pint of Tropicana and as much Florette as I could shovel in at dinner wasn’t getting me anywhere near to my five portions. I ended the week in a Pizza Hut, delighted, really delighted, to have access to the salad bar.
The liquid side of the experiment was proving a cinch. I had to give up visiting my favourite cafe for a month, their coffee machine fed with unadvertised Lavazza, but it was no great trial substituting home-prepared Kenco Millicano. Pubs weren’t difficult either – there’s hardly a lager or spirit brand not flogged on telly – and cricketer Alastair Cook daily lent his good name to Buxton mineral water. I’d not yet gone thirsty.
My social life, however, was taking a hit. Invites to dine at Pizza Hut (still the only restaurant I’d seen advertised) were not being taken up. After an awful night at a party during which I refused all kinds of lovingly crafted nibbles to monopolise instead the communal bowl of Doritos, I decided it might make more sense to have friends over to mine. But an experimental dinner party was a disaster: the discovery that I was serving oven ready pizza going down terribly, especially when I followed it up with Uncle Ben’s risotto (“Is this… wet rice?”). The evening’s only triumph was a platter of torn-up Old El Paso flatbread, each square topped by a piece of Leerdammer cheese and a smudge of Marmite. It was my own recipe, the components having been sold to me in the course of a single episode of The Jeremy Kyle Show. I’d first combined the ingredients one lunchtime as a substitute for a sandwich, because a fortnight into the experiment I’d not yet seen a single advert for bread.
How was it possible, I asked ad-placement expert Paul Rowlinson, of media agency MindShare, that I had seen adverts for chocolate Weetabix, but not bread? Budgets, Rowlinson told me: “Most big companies tend to run a campaign for one or two of their brands over a four- to six-week period before moving on.” My bad luck, then, that when I wanted to make a sandwich, Associated British Foods had opted to promote their Twinings tea over Kingsmill bread, Premier Foods its Quorn sausages not Hovis.
Were there certain times of day I should watch TV breaks to find certain types of foods? Not really, said Rowlinson. “There’s an argument [in the industry] for ‘recency’, the idea that by advertising just before people are most likely to go shopping, it prompts them to buy. But TV advertising, broadly, is more often about driving up awareness of a brand, getting it in front of as many people as possible. It doesn’t matter if an ad is seen at 10 at night or nine in the morning.”
Though Rowlinson’s company had provided data that showed the spend on TV advertising of food and drink was climbing after a dip in 2008 and 2009 (going up by almost £200m in 2010 to £1.2bn and to £1.4bn in 2011) I was discovering that ad breaks were not the kingdom of gastronomic plenty they had seemed when I was younger. After sitting through a brain-stilling hour of The Wright Stuff and not seeing a single food ad, I started Sky-plussing everything I could think of: Celebrity Millionaire, Gillette Soccer Saturday, bits of kids’ TV, a long Ben Affleck film, a documentary called Octomom about a woman with eight children.
Disappointment. The football had nothing but adverts for gambling websites, and over an hour of children’s TV I was almost exclusively tempted with toys. (Rowlinson: “For the last few years you haven’t been able to advertise foods with high fat, salt and sugar on children’s TV channels, or at times of day when kids might be watching.”) Celebrity Millionaire just had more Old El Paso ads, while Affleck only added a jar of Uncle Ben’s sweet and sour sauce to my list. By the time I got toOctomom I was starting to wonder what Aptamil “follow-on milk” might taste like.
I was starting to notice physical effects. There was now a thin rim of blubber around my middle, and the mirror revealed not only the expected increase in blemishes and pimples but also a pallor that was always at its worst in the mornings. What mental energy I had was mostly spent daydreaming about vegetables.
I was lingering for longer and longer at the counter in Subway, adding that blissful handful of shredded lettuce to my sandwich, the three identical slices of watery cucumber…
At the end of a particularly bleak day my girlfriend saw fit to stage an intervention, ambushing me with a rule-breaking plate of salmon and beans for dinner. Was I imagining it, in the aftermath of the meal, when I immediately started to feel better? “No, no,” Briffa assured me, “these things can be incredibly immediate. It’s a bit like stopping smacking yourself in the face with a polo mallet. Immediately there’s relief.”
Afterwards, reluctantly, I forced down a Cornetto Enigma and checked how many days there were to go.
I had started dreaming about old adverts. Pop-Tarts and Ian Botham and Birds Eye, including one with Giles Coren selling frozen peas. This was a nadir: dreaming of a bearded food critic, and not even the Observer‘s own Jay Rayner.
I got through the last days in a haze of Whoppers and Dolmio and M&Ms, aided, if anything, by the inert state of my brain, which felt like it was permanently wrapped in a layer of insulation foam. I grimly saw out the last night in a Harvester, feeling as if I might actually be glowing with wretchedness. Most of us know that a diet heavy on processed foods might lead to sluggishness. But I had not anticipated how melancholic it would make me feel. It was like being a hormonal teenager again.
Certain assumptions had been confirmed. Booze, burgers, breakfast cereals and yoghurts were well advertised, and nobody was hurrying to promote fruit and vegetables. No surprises there: top-selling brands had the most money to spend to remain top-selling (alcohol accounted for £166m spent on TV advertising in 2011, compared to £14m for fruit and veg). Still, I was taken aback at the limited rotation of food and drink ads. By the end of the month I could stroll through a supermarket and point out just about every item currently being flogged on TV. Strangely, although I had put on a couple of centimetres around the waist, Briffa and I were both baffled to learn that I’d actually lost a bit of weight. Briffa wondered if I might have shed some muscle, due to a lack of protein in the diet; my own amateur theory is that overexposure to food, watching ad after ad, killed any delight in it. Once so susceptible to prettified burgers or cereals with a twist, I’d grown over the month to dread the approach of meals. Too much glamorised food advertising had an inverse effect, and made me crave spartan slices of bread.
At the start, Briffa had taken one look at my skinny frame and decided I must have “very good metabolism”. “I suspect you are blessed,” he had said, “with a physiology that’s going to keep you out of a lot of obvious trouble. But I doubt it will make you immune to the impact on your brain.” And as I’d battled in the Harvester to work out the 10% tip, it was clear to me he’d been right.
That night, watching a final blast of telly before bed and paying close attention during the breaks out of habit, I noticed an advert for a product I’d not seen before: a fruit-flavoured gummy sweet. Not me, “Guzzle Puzzle”, I thought – maybe once, but not any more. I switched over to the BBC, relieved. OFM