Rant the second: Special K – selling less as more

Posted on 5 March 2011 by


Special K: For girls who want more. Actual food: For women who want breakfast.

Special K: For girls who want more. Actual food: For women who want breakfast.

Special K – the cereal that brought you the “drop a jeans size in two weeks” campaign, in which you were encouraged to eat their product instead of food until none of your clothes fit you anymore, then swan around in front of white backgrounds wearing a red swimsuit, which would cease to fit you some two weeks after returning to a healthy diet – has a new ad campaign.

This latest venture shows the usual red-clad curvature, an image of the cereal box and a slogan that reads, in a fussy font:

For Girls

who want more

On face value, it’s a pretty stupid slogan for a diet food.  It declares Special K Clusters to be a cereal for those who want more, but will settle for a bowl of unsatisfying clumps of wheat with the occasional crumb of freeze-dried strawberry. Anybody’d want more if they were eating Special K for breakfast.

This vague, unattainable “more” extends to just about every product that’s advertised.  We’re supposed to expect more, get more or demand more from our bank accounts, insurance policies, kitchen cleaners, power tools, cosmetics, toothbrushes, sanitary towels and razors.  That much isn’t gender-specific – we must all be persuaded that our dissatisfaction is rooted in the goods we consume, so that we can be persuaded to consume more.  But when it comes to food that’s marketed at women[0], we enter a world of Orwellian newspeak in which less is more and more is less, and what we’re persuaded to consume is ourselves.

Gendered protein shakes at Holland and Barrett

Gendered protein shakes at Holland and Barrett

To see the difference in the way food and body-related products are marketed to men and women, you’ve only got to look at the protein supplements shelf in Holland and Barrett.  This is the exact same product, but for men it’s a “rapid way to build muscle, strength and power”, while for women it’s a “weight loss system” that “helps keep you feeling fuller for longer”.  Men gain size and strength, women lose weight – while drinking the same protein-shakes.  The product and its effectiveness at whatever it was originally intended for are lost – all that remains is an idea of what the target market is supposed to want, and what society is supposed to expect of them.

What Special K is offering “girls”, in this context, is not more but less.  Less flavour, less nutritional content, less calories[1], and after whatever dietary course they’re flogging this time, less them.  Even the moniker of “girls” instead of “women” is a diminution, exhorting us to be smaller, younger, lesser.  So this mysterious and elusive “more” that Special K offers is actually “less” re-packaged.  Exploitation is marketed as empowerment; compliance to standards of beauty based on physical weakness and vulnerability is sold as the pursuit of a challenging and worthy goal – but that goal is left ambiguous.  Why exactly are we supposed to want to be smaller?  Because that’s what “girls who want more” want to be, what men who want “girls who want more” want, and “girls who want more” want men who want “girls who want more” to want them, don’t they?  Yes, it is confusing – that’s the point, it’s the maze of self-denigrating, obsessive image consciousness that we’re meant to get lost in.  The idea of a healthy and satisfying breakfast becomes irrelevant, and all that remains is the red swimsuit and a vague yearning for an indefinite “more”.

This is what happens when patriarchy meets with capitalism to divide the population up into target consumer markets.  Products are no longer sold to perform a function, but to embody an idea; instead of the product fitting the needs of people, people’s desires are moulded to create markets for the product, and our needs remain unfulfilled, all the better to preserve the sense of emptiness that keeps us over-consuming.

Special K, in itself, is no more or less damaging than any other cereal, but its marketing does do real damage.  Special K and other diet-peddlers are selling the concept of wanting more through a dangerous bodily dissatisfaction.  It’s not just a case of patronising ads causing annoyance to feminist bloggers, it’s a dissatisfaction that causes eating disorders, depression and serious self-image and confidence issues in countless women.  Neither is it just a case of advertising companies needing to use models larger than a size 10.  Body acceptance has to come through means that don’t just objectify a wider range of women in order to sell more products.  In a mode of production in which the needs of people came before profit, we could focus on the product and its usefulness instead of the target market and their inadequacies.

We’ll know we’re a little closer to sanity when we see adverts for cereals declaring themselves to be:

For People

who want breakfast

[0] The only example I can think of, off-hand, of a diet food that’s marketed at men is Pepsi Max, which is deliberately and specifically a separate product to Diet Pepsi, purely because products with “diet” in the name are for women.

[1] Alright, grammar pedants: fewer calories.