In ten short years, Slim Fast, the weight loss product’s, $2 billion brand shrunk to $200 million. In need of a revamp, Slim Fast hired the Manhattan based ad agency, “The Bull-White House” for help. As they described in their case study of the ad campaign they designed, entitled “Get What You Really Want,” they approached the challenge with “two radical goals”: “drag Slim Fast into the 21st century—and force women’s reappraisal of the brand.” The result: an ad campaign that’s attention-grabbing hook is sexual gratification. As they establish, through the commercials, print ads, and online polls and forms, what you really want is sex. However, in doing so, the campaign set itself up for an ideological trap. The premise, getting what you really want, assumes that they know what we really want. The Slim Fast campaign’s discursive nature, one that writes in for you what you really want, commodifies desire and constructs a powerless consumer dependent on sexual validation.

Weight loss products belong to a specific market of female products that contribute to the feminine culture of consumerism. In a market where all products are designed to alter or shape physical repercussions, the way those products are communicated to the female consumer shape and create standards of beauty. In Feminist Consumerism and Fat Activism, Josee Johnston and Judith Taylor compare the discursive contributions of two ad campaigns in their construction of beauty. They acknowledge “ideology is a useful tool for feminists interested in understanding how ideas enable and preclude possibilities for transformative change” (994). This product was designed for, literally, change—changing your physical shape. It is almost unfair not to imagine the ideological repercussions without persecuting the mere invention of this product. Yet, as it aims to change, it redefines ideals of beauty.

In the Slim Fast ad campaign, without a weight loss product, you cannot achieve that change or be considered beautiful because of things you really want. In the 3rd commercial from the campaign entitled “Lights On,” the protagonist wants to “just look good naked.” She follow with, “two kids ago, I was doing the reverse cowgirl naked.” She does not feel comfortable because she cannot do something. She is held back and her beauty is defined by what she cannot do. Similarly, in their online polls one of the “Oh Shit Moments” that motivates you to “get what you really want”, is “getting a traffic ticket instead of just a warning.” She cannot flirt her way out of it, but not because she is not a good flirt…the traffic ticket becomes a punishment for not being beautiful enough, not a traffic violation. These women are in constant lack; they lack what it takes to be beautiful. Women who are not on slim fast are limited by the things they want to do but cannot do. The campaign never looks to define beauty as a definite thing; it can be either achievable or unachievable (a want.) “Getting What You Really Want” makes beauty into something forever elusive, allowing the diet industry to market the struggle indefinitely. The campaign does not define beauty but rather taunts you with it and in doing so positions the consumer in a submissive state. The female consumer is never whole; but there is a solution! Slim Fast. Slim Fast will provide you with the change you need to achieve your wants.

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However, there is a pattern to the wants, they are all sexually driven. She is not whole because she isn’t sexy, appealing enough. Slim Fast ads are not just shaping beauty but creating a sexually attractive female. The ads are creating a sexual being however, by suppressing another. These women aren’t whole, beautiful and sexy, because they are fat. Fat bodies are “reviled as asexual, out of control, or morally repugnant” (945). Fat bodies aren’t legitimate sexual subjects because they can’t desire. However, Slim Fast plays around with this notion. In their ads, the thing that is motivating the women to lose the weight is their desire for sex. In the first print ad, the silhouette wants her “jeans to go on easier” but also for them to “come off easier.” These fat women aren’t asexual and in fact want sex, but they cannot have it until they become thinner. There is a reward for losing weight and that is sex, but you can not have it until you accomplish one thing: taking control of your life and using Slim Fast. That means that the women hold all the power in controlling their fate, right?  

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[print ad 1; speech bubble/whisper bubble]

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[print ad 2, speech bubble/whisper bubble]

Sexuality becomes a reward. In “Hunger as Ideology,” Susan Bordo writes, “it is the created image that has the hold on your most vibrant, immediate sense of what is, of what matters, of what we must pursue for ourselves” (104). The campaign creates a fantasy for their consumers. Consumers of Slim Fast are sexy and get sex. They have accomplished their goal simply by using the product. Like the of the Dove campaign in the “Feminist Consumerism and Fat Activist,” there is a “social imperative to feel beautiful” (Johnston and Taylor, 945), to use the product. She feels as if will be accomplishing something that she wants to pursue for herself. It’s central to any good advertising campaign is incepting the need within the audience that they need this product for themselves. The consumer now derives their self-value from their sex appeal and so the Slim Fast campaign creates a need to desire and become sexy. However, although it instills this need onto the consumer, how does it legitimize it?

The Slim Fast campaign works to deconstruct the stigma around a weight loss product by deconstruction the stigma behind reasons a consumer might want one. “The objects we acquire, display, or simply admire are powerful medium for the circulation of messages about ourselves to others, and for learning the forms of expression for social interactions. ‘Man speaking to man through the medium of things’ ” (252, Leiss et al) –but is a weight loss product something to be consumed conspicuously? Not generally. However, that’s ok for Slim Fast because they are creating a product not to feel shame about—the only thing you feel shame about is your body, not the product! Norming the practice of weight loss; instilling the idea that it is something that every woman wants to achieve. Slim Fast promotes conspicuous consumption and open communication about the product. In the commercials, the women are always communicating with other women, telling them this is why I want to lose the weight. In the print ads, the silhouettes of women tell the female reader, via speech bubble, what she wants. The words are put in mouths of women. On their website, there is a forum posting and communicating how and why they use the product. Legitimizing the product begins with legitimizing that the consumer should feel like this is what they really want. To do so, Slim Fast creates a consumption community surrounding the product.

A consumption community, as defined by scholar Daniel Boorstin, is a group of people “who have a feeling of shared well-being, shared risks, common interests and common concerns that come from consuming the same kinds of objects” (22).  More than just consuming the product, you are consuming the idea of “you’re not alone.” Consumption communities stress “the attractiveness of the community, not just the desirability of the product” (Liess, et al., 148 ). Wanting to belong to the community, and talk within that community, is in itself a form of salesmanship in advertising (Leiss, et al., 69). The consumer promotes the product on her own and once she is encouraged to use it by her fellow members, she can encourage other woman, outside the community, to use it. Slim Fast illuminates a symbiotic relation between the community and the consumer. The community legitimizes the desire for the product but the consumer, by buying it the community, legitimizes the community. However, the community Slim Fast creates perpetuates a particular ideology that restricts the members’ self-expression.

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[polls that show audience for each answer]

 

A particular ideology is centric to the community: self-improvement to regain sexuality. The collective consensus reflected in the ads and online polls perpetuate that the members of the community, the consumers, are driven just by their sexual desires. One identity emerges as collective from the Slim Fast community and it becomes more than a consumption community but a collective community defined by a collective identity. The polls create this collective community around the campaign, like a collective campaign similarly to the women of the PPO who performed a “piece” called “Move It Fatty.” In the performance “in which the girl‐gang comes to the rescue” solidifies the “significance of female friendship.” It builds “solidarity and community” but also, “import[s] a feminist politic and a therapeutic effect”(Johnston and Taylor, 949). In the Slim Fast ad campaign, the therapeutic effect of self-confidence through sex assigns a collective identity to that community. Belonging to the community means prescribing to that identity. It binds the consumers to the reasons given to them by that community. Although they have agency to belong to that community and power to take control of their lives to use Slim Fast, do the reasons really belong to them? Is that what you really want?

Slim Fast constructs these “wants,” constructing you. Susan Bordo spends much of her essay “Hunger as Ideology” discussing the subjective relationship advertisements create between the consumer and food. The female consumer’s consumption of food is always contextualized in terms of sexuality. A woman’s “hunger for food is employed solely as a metaphor for their sexual appetite” (116). For the Slim Fast campaign, as in any weight loss campaign, hunger and food are the problem, they cause the weight problem, and their product comes up with a solution: controlling your hunger. But if food is a metaphor for sex, as hunger is for sexual appetite, what you are hungry for is not food but sex. Bordo writes, “a slender body may be attainable through hard work, but a ‘cool’ relation to food, the true ‘secret’ of the ‘other’ is a tantalizing reminder of what lies beyond the reach of the inadequate self” (103). The true secret in Slim Fast is the product; to achieve a full self and an adequate self–in the case of the campaign, a sexual self–you have to control your appetite. However, if what you are hungry for is sex but sex is what is supposed to motivate you, how do you assert that control over something that controls you? To be seen as that full self you have to be acknowledged as being sexy. “Body and sexuality emerge as coincidental signs: The body is something you shape, control and dress to validate yourself as an autonomous being capable of will power and discipline; and sexuality appears as something women exercise by choice” (Goldman, 388). If you want to be sexy you have to have control, yet even after you exercise control, you have to be validated as sexy. The women in the ads want to become objects of desire. What they really want is to lose weight “to look hot undressed,” be the hottest “MILF”,mom, in her area code. They desire being desired. Yet those desires are imposed on these women. The Slim Fast campaign employs commodity fetishism to project those desires upon the woman by associating them to the product. The product moves past its function. It’s not only the “things you produce but the feelings and affections they stimulated and challenged.” (Leiss, et al., 282). The feelings and affections associated to the Slim Fast product are ones of dependence and a need for validation. The consumer is dependent on the product to feel whole again. What they desire isn’t food or sex but the control the Slim Fast product promises to afford them. What they desire is sold to them in bottle, nutrition bar, or candy form. If they ever want control, they have to buy.

The Slim Fast campaign more than permeates ideologies and construction of beauty. Selling the female consumer her own potential, the person she could be, Slim Fast turns the woman into the product. Slim Fast drink or bar can’t give “pleasure” like sex, but rather the “satisfaction” that it might lead to sex. In Social Communication and advertising, satisfaction “is a state of being, whereas pleasure is a ‘quality of experience’ Pleasure can also be simulated through dreaming and thinking in a way that satisfaction cannot” (Leiss, et al., 311). The Slim Fast individual needs satisfaction to achieve her goal, the heavier women’s feelings are actually irrelevant if they don’t relate to wanting, desiring the end goal of weight loss. Slim Fast is creating and positioning women into desiring pleasure, ultimately relegating women to just seekers of pleasure. Removing the complex motivation for wanting to reshape their body or anything, woman just was pleasure. They would do whatever they need, not “really want” to attain it.

By turning a satisfied desire into something the consumer can buy, they are turning the consumer into the product.  The imperative to become that person is so strong because the potential persona they have created–one that is validated both by a consumption community and sexuality–isn’t whole until they use Slim Fast. Taunting women to wonder: how much do you believe in yourself to lose the weight? “You” is what you desire. You are buying into you. What you really want is you, the Slim Fast you. “What you really want” is Slim Fast.

Bibliography:

 Johnston, Josée, and Judith Taylor. “Feminist Consumerism and Fat Activists: A Comparative Study of Grassroots Activism and the Dove Real Beauty Campaign.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 33.4 (2008): 941-66. Print.

Leiss, William, and Jackie Botterill. Social Communication in Advertising: Consumption in the Mediated Marketplace. New York: Routledge, 2005. Print.

Bordo, Susan. “Hunger as Ideology.” Discourses and Conceptions of the Body (n.d.): 99-134. Print.

 Heath, Deborah, and Sharon Smith. “Commodity Feminism.” Critical Studies in Mass Communication. By Robert Goldman. London: Routledge, 1991. 333-51. Print.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Americans, the Democratic Experience. New York: Random House, 1973. 22. Print.

 

Kareen Abi Rafeh

 

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