Drive-Thru Diet Ads: More on Food and Advertising

By Katie, 9:07 am

The post I wrote a few days ago on Food and Advertising generated some really insightful comments! I knew I wanted to continue the conversation with a follow-up post when I saw this article in the New York Times: Forget Jenni Craig. Hit the Drive-Thru.

The article examines the growing trend of fast food chains using dieting or weight loss-based marketing campaigns to sell their products. It all started with Jared, Subway’s famous spokesperson who lost a significant amount of weight dining on the chain’s Fresh Fit subs and sandwiches. Today the attention is on Taco Bell, which has released a “Drive-Thru Diet” marketing campaign to advertise its lighter Fresco menu. And lots of other fast food chains – including Dunkin’ Donuts, Quiznos, Starbucks, and McDonald’s – have begun offering lighter menu options with fewer calories.

So what do we make of these so-called “fast food diets”? Is this just harmless, clever marketing on the part of the fast food chains? Or is there a bigger problem with these restaurants associating their products with healthy living, or touting them as an effective weight loss tool? Can we really get lots of benefits from it?

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I personally keep waivering back and forth. On the one hand, if I truly want people to be healthier (which I do), then there’s a lot of good going on when a fast food chain starts jumping on the healthy living band wagon. On the other hand, the idea of using the phrases “fast food” and “healthy” so closely in the same sentence is a bit…unsettling.

I’m going to try to break it down into some pros and cons. I’m sure I haven’t thought of everything, so please add more!

Pros

1. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Sometimes we need a fast, cheap meal – health concerns be darned! It’s only being realistic to say that even the healthiest among us are going to partake in some fast food fare every now and then. So maybe we’re a bit too hard on the whole industry.

2. When fast food chains use dieting and weight loss as a form of advertising, it means that there are at least some better/lighter/healthier (not sure which word is appropriate here!) options on their menus. So when the health-conscious do eat fast food – be it for price, convenience, or taste – we have some more choices that fit within our goals and values.

3. A lot of people in our society eat fast food regularly…some even eat it a lot. While I’d love to see those people change their habits and lifestyles more drastically, I’d also just like for them to be able to live somewhat healthier lives. If adding a Fresco menu allows that to happen (at least slightly), great!

4. Fast food is not evil in and of itself. Like most things, enjoying a little bit every now and then is no big deal. As mature adults, we are able to make our own decisions about what and where to eat, and for some people that might include fast food.

Cons

1. It seems a bit misleading to me when fast food chains claim that their food is HEALTHY, when the reality is probably more like, there are some options that aren’t THAT BAD. This isn’t necessarily the case across the board, especially at a place like Subway where you can customize your meal. But…really? Fast food…healthy? We know that, in general, that’s just not true.

2. As with all advertising campaigns, there’s a lot of fine print that the average consumer overlooks. For example, the Taco Bell Drive-Thru Diet ads make it seem like the spokeswoman lost weight just by eating their food; the fine print, however, says that she actually lost weight by changing her diet overall and committing to an exercise routine. Is it ok to mislead as long as you put the truth in teeny tiny print?

3. What are the costs to people who actually do lose weight by eating fast food? Surely they must be missing some vitamins and nutrients due to a lack of dietary variety. No one should eat any one thing – be it subs, sandwiches, burritos, whatever – every single day (which is what some of these “diets” recommend).

4. These fast food advertising campaigns are contributing to our society’s overall problem of equating “healthy” with “low calorie.” Almost all of the fast food chains mentioned here focus on calories – either exclusively or primarily. Quiznos has 500 calorie-and-under subs. Starbucks has panini sandwiches with 400 calories or fewer. The New York Times article points out, however, that calories are only part of the equation. Many of these meals are so high in sodium that they can hardly be considered healthy.
So, enjoy your meals, live a long and happy life and get a customizable retirement banner!

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My overall feeling is that I am glad that fast food chains are attempting to offer some lighter options on their menus. At the same time, touting fast food as a weight loss tool or legitimate component of healthy living seems a bit too misleading for me.

What do you think about “drive-thru diets” and other fast food campaigns that make diet, weight loss, and health claims? Is this just harmless, clever advertising? Do you eat fast food, and if so, do you try to choose one of the “healthier” options? Have you ever used fast food as a tool for weight loss?

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