A Healthy Dose of Humor by keara


									                      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.

       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


                                                                                       [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

 Watterson, Bill. “Calvin & Hobbes.” 28 Feb. 1989, Universal Press Syndicate.
 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


[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

  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.
  “Calvin.” 17 June, 1989.
  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
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]

  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).
  See 21 C.F.R. 128.10
  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).
  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]

   “Calvin.” 28 Feb. 1989.
   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.
   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.”
    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
   “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


        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

   “Calvin.” 22 Mar. 1990.
   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)
   Guisewite, Cathy. “Cathy.” 8 Aug. 2002, Universal Press Syndicate.
   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.

   21 U.S.C. 343(q)(5)(A)(i) exempts food “served in restaurants … for immediate human consumption…” from
mandatory nutritional labeling
   Amend, Bill. “Foxtrot.” 28 Mar. 2005, Universal Press Syndicate.
   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

     Watterson, Bill. “Calvin & Hobbes,” It‟s a Magical World. Universal Press Syndicate, 1996. p 75.
  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


[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

   See 21 U.S.C. 343(i); 21 C.F.R. 101.4, 101.22-.35.
   “Foxtrot.” 25 July 2004.
   “Foxtrot.” 14 May 2003.
   “Foxtrot.” 19 July 2003.
   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
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]

     “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


[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

   “Cathy.” 27 Nov. 1997.
   “Cathy.” 18 May, 1997.
   “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


                        Poor Choices as a Result of Consumer Confusion

   See FDA/CFSAN Defect Action Level Handbook. Available online at
   “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

   “Foxtrot.” 27 Jan. 2005
   See 21 U.S.C. 343(q)(1)(E).
   See 21 C.F.R. 101.14(c).
   Watterson, Bill. “Calvin & Hobbes,” It‟s a Magical World. Universal Press Syndicate, 1996. p 107.
   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).
   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
   “Cathy.” 18 Jan. 1997.
   “Foxtrot.” 29 Oct. 2004.

          . 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


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