Trans fats, a classic straw man (?)

I’m not really a conspiracy guy. In fact, I hate Conspiracy Guy. And I also hate Anti-Corporation Guy. But this trans fat thing has been irritating me for a while now, and I needed to get this off my chest.

Are you like me, sitting around all day thinking about the marketing of snack foods? Well has it ever occurred to you that these so-called “trans fats” that (suddenly) disappeared from all of our snack foods never really existed in the first place?

If you have no idea what I’m talking about, here’s a quick refresher: A few years ago (I’d say about 2005), we realized that there was something called “trans fats”  in our packaged foods like potato chips and the like. So far as I, an average consumer, could tell, it was never really explained why this was bad, but since it had fats in the name, we just assumed it was.

No offense.

And, by a sudden miracle, within days it became virtually impossible to find anything containing trans fats*. Within minutes, Lays, Doritos, Cheetos and every other chip purveyor in the world was running ads boasting that its foods were trans fat free! It was a miracle! (If you care, here’s an extremely confusing and contradictory Wikipedia article on trans fats).

*Author invokes Hyperbolic License.

And we all just accepted this because scientists supposedly said trans fats existed, and were bad, which shows a tenuous grasp on both the concept and history of science. For thousands of years, science has been basically continually proving itself wrong. That’s kind of the whole idea behind it. And especially in matters of food and health, science has basically shown that, beyond “eat your vegetables,” it really doesn’t know anything. Every five years or so, we get a new ruling on whether eggs are part of a balanced breakfast.

What I think we’ve seen here is a classic straw-man argument by the collective snack makers of the world.

1. Invent something that sounds bad.

2. Say it has been removed from your product.

3. Convince public that potato chips are somehow healthy now.

If the food at McDonald's doesn't have trans fat, then what does?

This is on the same level of genius as New Coke and is kind of the same thing. In 1985, Coca-Cola re-invented its sacred formula with a sweeter version that basically tasted more like Pepsi, which at the time was running the Pepsi challenge, a fair but ultimately misleading* ad campaign in which regular people did a blind taste test to decide whether they like Coke or Pepsi better.

*I read this, I think, in one of Malcolm Gladwell’s books, but the reason Pepsi won the taste tests all the time is that Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, thus will naturally have a greater appeal on a one-sip basis. But the test did not represent the way people actually consume pop, which is generally in 12-ounce doses, over a 10-20 minute period.

The funny thing was, when Coke made its big announcement that it had changed the formula, it didn’t even seem particularly well prepared to explain what it had done or what the point was.

At a press conference in New York, Coke CEO Robert Goizueta, who had previously been one of the company’s flavor chemists, was asked to describe the new taste.

“Smoother, uh, uh, yet, uh, rounder yet, uh, bolder … it has a more harmonious flavor,” he said, which is exactly the way you’d expect someone who had devoted his life to the product and to flavor chemistry to describe the new taste.

The public hated New Coke, of course, and demanded the return of Old Coke, which ended up being a huge success for the company all over again.

Which brings us back to the trans fats people. While they didn’t really have the option of collectively making crappier-tasting potato chips, they did have the option of inventing a straw man they could easily defeat.

The face of trans fat.

Next time you’re at the grocery store, go down the snack food aisle and see if you can find anything with trans fat in it. Anything. And then ask yourself, if snack foods have contained trans fat for the last 80 years, how is it now so easy to produce them without it?


The Internet: “People are messed up”


Pictured: The human condition.

Above is a screen grab from a page that shows me the words typed into a search engine that led people to my blog.

I think all of my readers (thanks to both of you) can tell you that I’ve never explored the cultural relevance of  “preteen latin bitches” in this space, but that somebody out there typed that into Google and went enough pages deep to find this blog (I would think at least 30 pages), and then clicked on the link to this blog is almost mind blowing. Not to mention illegal.

Today’s search engine terms are tame compared to the stuff that normally pops up. Searches for beastiality, gay porn, gay beastiality (no joke) and all kinds of inexplicable fetishes have led people to a blog by a sportswriter who writes about sitcoms and gas stations.*



If my blog is any indication — and it most certainly is not — the Internet is primarily used to find the following:

  • Information about Michael Jordan
  • Pornography
  • Photos of Debbie Dunning

I am reminded of author Chuck Klosterman’s prediction for the year 2041, in his piece “A brief history of the 21st century” in Esquire:

JUNE 11, 2041: In a matter of weeks, the entire Internet is replaced by “news blow,” a granular microbe that allows information to be snorted, injected, or smoked. Data can now be synthesized into a water-soluble powder and absorbed directly into the cranial bloodstream, providing users with an instantaneous visual portrait of whatever information they are interested in consuming (Sadly, this tends to be slow-motion images of minor celebrities going to the bathroom.)

I’m not sure how much different that is from “Rock of Love,” really. Klosterman has a lot of interesting ideas about the Internet, many of which I tend to agree with. For example, everyone likes to call the Internet a meritocracy, wherein the best (most meritorious) content wins. This argument is especially prominent when discussing the so-called “old media’s” current problems. But Klosterman points out (I believe this was on a podcast with Bill Simmons) that isn’t really true, and I think this blog is a good example for Klosterman’s argument.

If I started posting pictures of naked women on this blog, is there any doubt that my traffic would increase? I don’t think there is. It would probably double within two days and who knows where it might go from there. If all I did on this blog was post pictures of naked women,  it would be even more popular.

Is that merit? Does that mean the Internet is a meritocracy?

Obviously not. What people are primarily seeking on the Internet is not sustenance. It’s sugar. It’s kind of like the beverage business. Sure, you can make plenty of money selling healthy smoothies that are expensive to produce and buy, but Coca-Cola is the most recognizable word in the world, and it’s just selling useless, carbonated sugar water.

I don’t think meritocracies exist within any realm in which people are free to consume whatever they like, and might not exist anywhere at all. Perhaps academia is close to a meritocracy, but there are a lot of politics at work in academia that pollute the idea.

With that all said, I think I’ll try to generate a few more hits, using the one word I’m sure will do it:


90s Week: Surge



As readers of this blog — thanks to all six of you, by the way — you know that I usually try to find some meaning in the seemingly meaningless stuff I write about.

Well, it doesn’t get much more meaningless than “Surge: Fully loaded citrus drink,” except that Surge was a triumph of viral marketing, before viral marketing even really existed, and proved that humans are total suckers.

As you’ll see in this ad, Surge is the only soft drink ever created and specifically marketed to one person, that person being Merritt Schenk. If you don’t know Merritt Schenk, don’t worry about it. You know someone exactly like him, who most likely has had a run-in or two with the police and loves Pabst Blue Ribbon.

As all failures do, Surge (made by the Coca-Cola company) originated in Norway, where it was called “Urge,” giving it a vaguely sexual connotation that Norwegians loved. Surge enjoyed a nice run from 1996-2001, when Coca-Cola stopped its production in every country that matters (the U.S., Denmark and Sweden).

Norwegians love sexual connotations in their soft drinks.

Norwegians love sexual connotations in their soft drinks.

Now, believe it or not, one can of Surge is worth at least $27.

So that’s all well and good, proving that nostalgia, no matter how meaningless, has real value to people.*

*I have to wonder, though, does the person who wins that auction plan on drinking the can of Surge, or do they actually view this an some kind of an investment? Is the value of an unopened can of Surge from 1998 expected to rise?

But I think the most significant thing about Surge is the way it was marketed. The commercials made it seem like drinking Surge would turn you into some kind of urban warrior. It specifically targeted pre-teen and teenage boys,* on the assumption that they daydream about tearing the crap out of things for no real reason, which is exactly right.

*Although the ads depict teenagers, everybody who’s ever sold anything knows that you sell things to pre-teens by using teens, and you sell things to teens by using adults. The magazine, “17,” for example, is really for 13-year-old girls. No 17 year olds read 17. They read “21,” which is actually called, “Cosmopolitan.”

The genius of it was that, especially when you’re dealing with adolescents, the product doesn’t have to actually do what it suggests it will do. It can thrive on urban legend alone, because teenage boys want the ads to be true, they will set about proving them to be true. Scientists have studied this same effect by watching the behavior of two groups of young adults, one given actual alcohol, and one given what they only think is alcohol. Even the ones drinking the bad-tasting water will exhibit drunken behavior almost immediately, not because they’re getting drunk, but because they want to believe they are.

So it was with Surge, which wouldn’t do anything that a cappuccino wouldn’t do, of course.  But that didn’t stop 14-year-old boys from downing a six pack of it and crashing shopping carts into the light poles at Wal-Mart.

Nobody wanted to hear this at the time, but Surge actually contained less caffeine than Mountain Dew. That nobody ever realized this, despite the information being available on the back of the cans themselves is one of the great triumphs in marketing history, and also completely terrifying. If the power of suggestion is that strong, and humans are that capable of being that disinterested in the truth, then there would seem to be no limits on what we could be easily duped into believing.

As it turns out, it wasn’t the Surge that was dangerous, it was the people drinking it.