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A Healthy Dose of Humor: How Comic Strips Illustrate Consumer Reactions to Food Labeling [redacted version: graphics deleted] Devon Bush Class of 2005 April 7, 2005 This paper is submitted in satisfaction of the course requirement for the winter term Food & Drug Law course. ABSTRACT If the goal of food labeling requirements is more informed, rational decision-making by consumers, the success of the labeling depends in large part on the psychology of consumers— how well they react to receiving given information on their food products. This paper looks at newspaper comic strips as presenting a catalog of consumer reactions to nutrition labeling. While each individual strip may be characterized by much exaggeration and absurdity, the strips taken together present a surprising picture of the many possible mistakes and poor choices that can be made by consumers. By observing the context and the characters making these poor choices, the objectives and potential failings of food labeling and other food regulations are highlighted. Introduction [graphic deleted]1 What can comic strips show us about food labeling? Comic strip characters who encounter food information exhibit a wide variety of reactions, mostly intended to show the absurdity of a given character‟s viewpoint. Someone happily eating healthy, safe food generally isn‟t funny, and so comic strips almost universally present characters making nearsighted, unhealthy, biased, or otherwise foolish decisions concerning their food. Of the approximately 8,000 individual strips reviewed for this paper, over 100 contained at least some reference to food labels or the desire to eat healthy, and the vast majority of those featured at least one consumer who was making either a poor or uninformed choice.2 One can thus see food-related comic strips as presenting a catalogue of potential “bad behavior” by consumers or producers, and how food labeling plays a part in their poor choices. This paper will deal with three different, but related, scenarios in which the characters make poor choices. The first poor-choice scenario occurs when a consumer is being deliberately deceived or distracted from the nutritional value of their food, often by an entity characterized as manipulative or diabolical. The second, and most common, scenario is the one in which the characters‟ own irrational biases result in nutritional information inducing the characters to eat less healthy food than they otherwise would. The most frequently occurring bias is, of course, the prevalent belief that “anything that‟s healthy can‟t taste good.” The third context is where a poor choice occurs because of the characters‟ own confusion or ignorance in interpreting labeling information. Throughout these contexts, it is interesting to note how the legal environment is affecting the poor choices, notably the Food, Drug & Cosmetics Act (FD&C Act) and relevant regulations. This paper focuses on three comic strips presenting a spectrum of 1 Watterson, Bill. “Calvin & Hobbes.” 28 Feb. 1989, Universal Press Syndicate. 2 In compiling examples, the comics reviewed were “Calvin & Hobbes” cartoons from 1985-1995, “Foxtrot” cartoons from 1999-present, and “Cathy” cartoons from 1996-present. common consumer types: Bill Watterson‟s “Calvin & Hobbes,” which features an impetuous conniving boy; and Cathy Guisewite‟s “Cathy,” showing a health-conscious but often weak- willed adult; Bill Amend‟s “Foxtrot,” which portrays an entire dysfunctional family.3 Poor Choices Caused by Deception and Distraction Characters misled or distracted from the true nutritional value of food by claims or devices deliberately included by the food makers are often used to generate humor. The comic relief comes in observing both how far the stylized cynical and manipulative corporations are willing to go in peddling unhealthy wares and how willing the consumer is to play along with the hoodwinking. [graphic deleted] The above “Calvin & Hobbes” cartoon shows the essence of the manipulative corporation willing to sell any product, no matter how deceitfully, in order to make a buck.4 Calvin, the person behind the would-be “curative-elixir” has a history of demonstrating shallow greed and dishonest get-rich-quick schemes.5 This comic provides one of the few cartoons in which one of the characters is a marketer attempting to do the deluding, although this is perhaps because there aren‟t terribly many cartoon characters who are food company executives. Two things stand out about the cartoon from a food labeling perspective. First, Calvin is fully aware of the ability to mislead consumers through nutrition claims; he is attempting to hide the filthy and useless nature of his elixir behind a “fortified with chlorophyll” claim. The scientific sounding claim, coupled with the “curative” in the title is an invitation to gullible consumer, and gives insight into the 3 Unless otherwise noted, all comic images contained in this paper were obtained from the comic archives maintained by uclick, LLC, available online at http://www.ucomics.com. 4 “Calvin.” 17 June, 1989. 5 Another get-rich-quick scheme, for example, included Calvin photographing his toy plastic dinosaurs and attempting to sell the photos to a science museum as actual dinosaur photos taken during a time-traveling expedition. motivation for the strict regulation of such health claims by the FDA.6 The FD&C Act restrictions on natural contaminants also would bar Calvin‟s drainage infused sludge.7 Second, the only thing that prevents Calvin from marketing his elixir in the strip is Hobbes‟ reminder that “anyone can see it‟s filthy.” Calvin ends up eschewing the bogus nutritional claims not because of a desire for honesty, and certainly not out of fear of legal sanction,8 but only because the essence of the product is too obvious for the scheme to work. That desire to mislead consumers to the maximum extent possible is also demonstrated in the following Peanuts cartoon, although in a context where the „product‟ is capable of being concealed.9 [graphic deleted] Linus, with his (clearly insincere) sing-song call and deliberate mysteriousness, is playing the same role as Calvin in the above strip: trying to unload an undesirable item on a hopefully unsuspecting bystander. But here the consumer‟s psychology is illustrated as well: Snoopy would love a piece of candy or satisfaction of his curiosity, but is petrified of receiving a worm. This uncertainty-induced fear nearly paralyzes Snoopy, but the joke comes as Snoopy resolves his dilemma with the sneaky realization that he too can play the role of deceitful purveyor. A deeper look at consumer side of deceptive labeling is provided in the following strip as Calvin believes his cereal, “Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs,” must be healthy as a result of the “fortified with eight essential vitamins” claim. [graphic deleted] 6 21 C.F.R. 101.14(c) states that the FDA will only authorize health claims where there is “significant scientific agreement” about the validity of the claim. However, Calvin could perhaps escape this by adding a disclaimer. See Pearson v. Shalala, 134 F.3d 650 (D.C.Cir. 1999). 7 See 21 C.F.R. 128.10 8 Perhaps with good reason: unless Calvin‟s stand is very near a state line, he is outside the “interstate commerce” condition required to trigger the prohibitions of the FD&C Act. See 21 U.S.C 331(a)-(d). 9 Schulz, Charles. “Peanuts.” 16 Mar. 1969, United Feature Syndicate. Image obtained from the archives of United Media, available online at www.comics.com. Here, Calvin falls victim to exactly the sort of delusion he was trying to take advantage of when marketing his elixir.10 One can see the earnestness in Calvin‟s face as he refers Hobbes to the box‟s own words: “part of a wholesome, nutritious, balanced breakfast.” Although the cereal may be pure sugar, there is nothing to prevent a profit-minded corporation from prominently displaying such a claim so long as the cereal is sufficiently low in fats, cholesterol, and sodium.11 Cereal is also an interesting food in that a large number of cereals are consumed by children, who one imagines are generally much more concerned about taste than nutrition.12 Thus, one can see a portrait of cereal companies as manipulating a delicate balance of convincing kids that theirs is the tastiest cereal around, while also attempting to convince the parents who buy the cereal that it is at least moderately healthy.13 Other strips demonstrate the lengths to which the cereal company goes to convince innocent children (and not-so-innocent children like Calvin) to buy the sugar-saturated food. [graphic deleted] Here, Hobbes is skeptical of eating so much sugar, but Calvin‟s enthusiasm for the promotional propeller beanie trumps any concern over nutritional value.14 [graphic deleted] 10 “Calvin.” 28 Feb. 1989. 11 21 C.F.R. 101.14(e)(3) requires that products containing a health claim must not exceed 20% of the daily recommended consumption of fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, or sodium. 21 C.F.R. 101.14(e)(6) also provides that foods (although not dietary supplements) must exceed 10% of the daily recommendation for vitamins A or C, iron, calcium, protein, or fiber. Oddly enough, if Calvin‟s concoction in the previous strip had enough leaves in it for fiber, it might pass this test anyway. 12 Another strip features Calvin attempting to convince his dad to try a bowl of “lip-smacking, crunchy-on-the- outside, chewy-on-the-inside” Chocolate Frosted Sugar Bombs rather than the dad‟s “bland, colorless oatmeal.” The dad responds “No thanks. I‟m trying to reach middle age.” 13 A real-world example of this phenomenon is the “kid tested, mother approved” slogan of the relatively healthy Kix cereal. A more typical example of the balance may be the boxes for Kellogg‟s Fruit Loops and Frosted Flakes, both of which feature large cartoon characters attesting to the taste and fun, but have recently added a prominent“1/3 less sugar” claim to the box front. Of course, both cereals still contain enough sugar such that it is the second ingredient... 14 “Calvin.” 27 Feb. 1989. Once again, the cereal company realizes that taste and clever promotions can override healthy, informed choices.15 Calvin goes from being mildly interested in the nutrition labeling content (although because it‟s Calvin, the caffeine may be a selling point), to being instantly distracted and excited by the “Buzzy the Hummingbird Doll.” Although provisions of the FD&C Act regulate that extraneous information or graphics cannot be placed within the nutrition information panel,16 nothing prevents the other portions of the box from being far more attention-grabbing. Just as Calvin‟s absurd sweet tooth makes him only moderately convincing as the victim of cereal labeling, there are other cartoon contexts where corporations may be manipulating food information, but consumers are all too willing to go along for the ride. [graphic deleted] This “Cathy” strip transfers us to the adult context of fast food consumers who are reading a newspaper and learning of the health consequences of the excessive portions pushed upon them by the evil corporations “responsible for the fattening of America.”17 This strip was published in 2002, possibly drawn in response to the widely publicized lawsuit claiming McDonald‟s caused the plaintiff‟s obesity by failing to inform them of the consequences of larger portions.18 All of the characters are drawn with pudgy waistlines, and two of them quickly proclaim their own innocence—they didn‟t know about the calories so it wasn‟t their fault. Restaurants do not fall under the requirements placed on packaged food to display serving size 15 “Calvin.” 22 Mar. 1990. 16 See 21 C.F.R. 101.2(e) (mandating that the required information on the information panel of a product may not be interrupted with intervening material). Caffeine labeling is not required by the FDA, which makes this box illegal under 21 C.F.R. 101.2(e) if the caffeine label is interspersed within the other nutritional information. Perhaps in response to hyperactive children like Calvin, campaigns to mandate caffeine quantity labeling have been mounted by, among others, the Center for Science in the Public Interest. See e.g. http://www.cspinet.org/nutrition/caffeine.htm (urging citizens to write to the FDA in support of caffeine labeling) 17 Guisewite, Cathy. “Cathy.” 8 Aug. 2002, Universal Press Syndicate. 18 Pelman v. McDonalds Corp.¸ 237 F.Supp.2d 512 (2003). and proportional nutritional information,19 and the fist panel depicts consumers viewing the industry as exploiting that fact to the detriment of everyone‟s health. But the joke presented in the second panel is whether the characters themselves are so innocent, and really mind having the wool pulled over their eyes. The woman demanding nutrition labeling is drawn with her finger in the air and her eyes rolled back—a comically-self-righteous pose suggesting that she perhaps knows her views are both temporary and in a minority. The other three adults do a sudden about-face as they realize that being an innocent victim of deliberately large portions is better than being informed and feeling guilty—since judging by the donut piles, none of these characters is going to willingly choose healthy portions. The three characters leaving the room in a row visually demonstrate the process of willfully ignoring in the deception—the further they are from the newspaper the more ready they are to get some lunch. The kernel of that joke—that characters will willingly cooperate with deceptive food appearances if it means they can justify eating more tasty food—can even appear in contexts where nutrition isn‟t explicitly at issue. [graphic deleted] This “Foxtrot” cartoon20 shows the girl as initially angry that her rabbit looked like it contained more chocolate than it actually did.21 Then, just like the employees from the "Cathy” cartoon realized that being „deceived‟ by fast food companies wasn‟t all bad, she realizes that hollow bunnies have their advantages, and ignores the mother‟s comment so that she can fill up on chocolate syrup. 19 21 U.S.C. 343(q)(5)(A)(i) exempts food “served in restaurants … for immediate human consumption…” from mandatory nutritional labeling 20 Amend, Bill. “Foxtrot.” 28 Mar. 2005, Universal Press Syndicate. 21 21 U.S.C. 343(e) would require the total weight of the bunny to be listed on the wrapper, but a manufacturer may sculpt food to maximize the appearance of size where justification can be shown (hollow chocolate may be less susceptible to cracking). Lastly, the strongest picture of a consumer being deceived by corporations may be another a consumer who stubbornly refuses to believe the extent of his own delusion. Calvin, the same boy who guzzles Chocolate-Frosted Sugar Bombs to get a hummingbird doll, asserts that marketing has no impact on him.22 [graphic deleted] While the punch line relates to shoes, it could just have easily been fast food, sugary cereal, or cure-all elixirs. The message is clear—as long as advertising still exists, there will be no shortage of cartoon characters making poor food decisions. Poor Choices Caused by Consumer Bias Comic strips, as opposed to political cartoons, are generally character-focused. Generally, more punch lines are directed at individual character‟s idiosyncrasies and absurdities than the idiosyncrasies and absurdities of their surroundings. This tendency may explain why consumer bias is perhaps the most common source of poor food choices in cartoons. Of course, the FDA was never intended to specifically change consumer preferences—but rather to ensure public safety as well as provide information to consumers.23 What some of these comics is demonstrate is the inevitable consequence of “helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need to use medicines and foods to improve their health”—consumers may use 22 Watterson, Bill. “Calvin & Hobbes,” It‟s a Magical World. Universal Press Syndicate, 1996. p 75. 23 The FDA‟s mission statement is the following: “The FDA is responsible for protecting the public health by assuring the safety, efficacy, and security of human and veterinary drugs, biological products, medical devices, our nation‟s food supply, cosmetics, and products that emit radiation. The FDA is also responsible for advancing the public health by helping to speed innovations that make medicines and foods more effective, safer, and more affordable; and helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need to use medicines and foods to improve their health.” http://www.fda.gov/opacom/morechoices/mission.html. that information for purposes other than improving their health. Others demonstrate that for many consumers, all the information in the world will not help them in their attempts to eat well. [graphic deleted] The FD&C Act and implementing regulations mandate listing the ingredients of foods in order of their proportion,24 and this cartoon shows those laws functioning exactly as intended.25 The impulsive kid wants the sweetest tasting cereal he can find, but the rational mom, who is also shown studiously comparing jar labels in the fourth panel, uses the ingredient information on the cereal boxes to control her son‟s sugar intake. However, when the mom isn‟t around… [graphic deleted] …the son uses the ingredient listings for his own purpose: verifying that the cereal is going to satisfy his sweet tooth.26 After hearing that the ingredients are almost entirely various sugars, the boy raises his bowl in approval and anticipation of sugary goodness. While the younger boy‟s bias is confined to simply preferring sugar, the classic “if it‟s unhealthy it must be better-tasting” bias is demonstrated by the other brother and father shopping in the following cartoon. [graphic deleted] Here the dad, Roger, is playing a slightly different version of the thoughtful consumer than the mom in the previous strip.27 The dad is comparing the fat and calorie content of various products, and, with his hand on his chin—the generic cartoon symbol for thoughtfulness—is thinking seriously about the choices. However, with the son‟s advice, the pudgy28 Roger always 24 See 21 U.S.C. 343(i); 21 C.F.R. 101.4, 101.22-.35. 25 “Foxtrot.” 25 July 2004. 26 “Foxtrot.” 14 May 2003. 27 “Foxtrot.” 19 July 2003. 28 Although his weight is not easily visible in this strip, other “Foxtrot” strips show the dad as the stereotypical overweight suburbanite using various jokes involving failed diets, abandoned exercise routines, and swimming pool fiascos. chooses the least healthy option. Both characters clearly believe that the unhealthy options are the way to go for tasty food. These “Foxtrot” cartoons depict a type of consumer who would actually fare better if no foods were labeled or marketed based on nutritional merit, but instead all foods were marketed solely on taste. If that were the case, one could imagine the son and dad in the above strip might occasionally choose the healthier option (which may also taste better too), if only by chance. Further, after his scrutinizing of the packages, the dad remarks that the son is “more fun” to shop with than the rational mom. This illustrates yet another consumer mindset—that making healthy choices is both exhausting and no fun. [graphic deleted] Like Roger in “Foxtrot,” Cathy faces a series of choices between healthy and less healthy alternatives, and she eventually cracks under the stress of continually weighing her bias for less- healthy foods against her desire to be healthy.29 Again, we see a portrait of a consumer who would be better off without so many choices, or without such clear health-labeling, though at a different level of health-consciousness. Interestingly, if we assume the above strips are representative of Cathy and Roger‟s food preferences, it would be impossible to design a single array of food options and labels such that both characters would eat an optimal diet. While, Roger, as mentioned above, might eat healthiest in an environment in which all foods were marketed on taste alone, Cathy might eat healthiest and be happiest in an environment where food was divided into “normal” and “healthy” categories, but with no further exhausting range of healthier and healthier options. Or she might not… [graphic deleted] 29 “Cathy.” 6 July 2003. All the information in the world isn‟t going to stop Cathy or her dad from devouring huge amounts of holiday food in this strip.30 Indeed, the nutritional information only aids in the characters ability to delude themselves about how healthy they are planning to eat. By spending the time before the meal carefully calculating the caloric content, the characters are able to pretend that they‟re taking steps towards a healthy diet, when they all know that they‟re just going to eat everything in sight. This failure of Cathy‟s to control portions exists in other contexts as well. [graphic deleted] Again, we see a huge serving size undermining Cathy‟s attempt to eat healthy. Cathy‟s large belly and her friend‟s chubby facial expression illustrate just how unsuccessful their diet is.31 Again, the existence of nutritional information will only aid the characters‟ delusion that they are eating healthily—the knowledge that the dressing is nonfat will enable them to turn a blind eye to the huge amount of calories they are consuming. While legal and market forces have both increased in the amount of nutritional information available for consumers to use and perhaps be biased towards, one psychologically significant aspect of foods remains unlabeled: the amounts of natural contaminants, or “filth” in food. [graphic deleted] Continuing the earlier theme of unhealthy decisions made by young boys with a taste for sugary foods, the above “Calvin & Hobbes” cartoon demonstrates how a prejudice against contaminants or processing of natural foods can lead to poor food decisions.32 Calvin is grossed out by the prospect of potential filth in his lunchmeat, which results in him consuming the much 30 “Cathy.” 27 Nov. 1997. 31 “Cathy.” 18 May, 1997. 32 “Calvin.” 26 Oct. 1987. less healthy Twinkie. Further, Susie, the girl in the strip, is so nauseated by the prospect of eating lizard parts that she eschews her lunch completely. The FDA‟s response to reactions such as Calvin‟s and Susie‟s are the Food Defect Action Levels, promulgated in pursuance of 21 CFR 110.110. These establish maximum levels of natural defects that do not present a health hazard, and, most importantly from a consumer psychology perspective, do not require a manufacturer to label the amount of such defects, which may include mites, mold, and insect parts.33 Thus, those consumers fortunate not to sit near Calvin can enjoy their natural products without being reminded of their “gross” contaminants. But the psychology of consumers (at least cartoon consumers) is more complex, as the next strip shows: [graphic deleted] Calvin is unwilling to eat the healthy dinner until he is deceived by his mom into thinking it is a gross specialty.34 Calvin‟s disgusted, yet immensely impressed, expression in the third panel shows the psychological transition from trying to avoid bugs and filth, to actively seeking them out as a novel or impressive experience. Calvin‟s dad, meanwhile, is going the opposite route, with his puckered face in the last panel indicating he is not as excited by the idea of spider pie. These idiosyncrasies surface again, but reversed, in a strip featuring a mosquito-ridden camping trip where Calvin‟s dad enthusiastically guts a fish to eat while Calvin watches in disgust. Poor Choices as a Result of Consumer Confusion 33 See FDA/CFSAN Defect Action Level Handbook. Available online at http://vm.cfsan.fda.gov/%7edms/dalbook.html 34 “Calvin.” 8 Dec. 1989. [graphic deleted] The above comic is a classic and absurd example of consumer confusion.35 Peter knows carrots contain vitamin A, and he knows that vitamin A is good for him. His confusion, placed in the vehicle of a pun, is in assuming that vitamin A is correlated with like-named grades. This illustrates the trade-off inherent in the FDA‟s requirement that companies list vitamin content on their foods, but not requiring manufacturers to inform consumers about the precise effects of those vitamins.36 Although the FDA‟s mission includes “helping the public get the accurate, science-based information they need”37 there are no legal provisions which will help poor misguided souls like Peter other than those preventing manufacturers from making false or unsupported claims about the vitamins.38 Perhaps more realistic examples of consumer confusion come in the following two cartoons involving potato chips. [graphic deleted] Here, Calvin‟s dad is trying to make a simple decision about which potato chips to get but the overload of information conveyed results in confusion and fatigue. 39 While there are several provisions of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act (FD&C Act) directly intended to address the veracity of labeling on these potato chip packages,40 information overload is much more difficult to prevent, given the need to provide some information combined with huge number of brands and varieties on the market.41 The dad is not 35 “Foxtrot.” 27 Jan. 2005 36 See 21 U.S.C. 343(q)(1)(E). 37 http://www.fda.gov/opacom/morechoices/mission.html. 38 See 21 C.F.R. 101.14(c). 39 Watterson, Bill. “Calvin & Hobbes,” It‟s a Magical World. Universal Press Syndicate, 1996. p 107. 40 See e.g. 21 U.S.C. 343(a) (specifically addressing “false or misleading” labels; 21 U.S.C 343(j) (products may not claim to have special dietary uses without bearing required information concerning the nutritional properties). 41 See generally Lars Noah, “The Imperative to Warn: Disentangling the „Right to Know‟ from the „Need to Know‟ About Consumer Product Hazards.” 11 Yale J. Reg. 293 (arguing that ever-increasing government labeling an ignorant or lazy consumer—like the dad in “Foxtrot” he has his hand to his mouth indicating his thoughtfulness. He just doesn‟t want to have to invest a huge amount of energy to make a nutritional decision about a food which probably isn‟t going to have health benefits regardless of which bag he chooses. While we don‟t get to see how Calvin‟s dad resolves the situation, the following “Cathy” cartoon illustrates one possible outcome involving potato chips. [graphic deleted] Both bags are drawn with what is likely a flashy health claim in the top left corner, and one can observe squiggly lines on both bags that probably represent more pronouncements of “lite,” “low-fat,” “no fat,” or “diet.” 42 Cathy is happy and carefree as she throws her head back and tosses the chips she believes are not fattening into her mouth. But she has confused the bags, and anguish results. So what can consumers do about confusion? The following “Foxtrot” cartoon illustrates a different perspective on consumer confusion—the confused (or at least ostensibly confused) consumer as the unscrupulous plaintiff. [graphic deleted] Jason is concocting a get-rich-quick scheme exactly the inverse of Calvin‟s scheme involving the Curative Elixir made from drainage water.43 Instead of taking advantage of ignorant or confused consumers to sell a questionable product, Jason‟s idea is to pretend to be just such a confused consumer, and then litigate for damages. regulations will result in increasing consumer apathy and confusion). Compare 21 C.F.R. 101.2(e) (indirectly addressing overloading by mandating that the required information on the information panel of a product may not be interrupted with intervening material) with 42 Fed. Reg. 27261 (preferring that all foods list all nutrient contents individually, rather than allow the simplified claim “contains no vitamins or minerals” for foods not possessing them) 42 “Cathy.” 18 Jan. 1997. 43 “Foxtrot.” 29 Oct. 2004. Conclusion . Nutritional information, food labeling, and the desire to eat healthy has become a part of the public consciousness such that a significant number of comic strips show the foibles of consumers in understanding and acting on health information. Cartoon characters have no shortage of devices causing them to make poor food decisions: ignorance, bias, confusion, deception, and distraction. Most of the cartoon characters would have some protection from the deceptions involving bugs, elixirs, and bogus nutritional content, assuming current FDA regulations could be enforced in comic strips. However, with regards to ignorance, distraction, and confusion, the cartoon consumers are left to their own devices, and, fortunately for readers of the strips, comical choices result.
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