It was back in the early 1990s (which, for my younger readers, was just after the Biblical Flood and just before the Italian Renaissance) when I had an epiphanic encounter with three obese people in a lift.
I’d been asked to speak at a conference in America. It was like most conferences – the star names gave nothing away while exuding the aura of glossy skin and pampered ego that comes from knowing they earn more in 5 days than normal people earn in a year. The interesting thinking came, as it always does, from the edges.
And then, after a dinner in which every course tasted incredibly sweet to me, as though sugar had been added to everything, I went to find my room and got into a lift where I was joined by an obese man, his obese wife, and their obese kid.
All 3 of them were carrying plates on which they had piled chocolate cake and ice cream – emergency rations, I guessed, in case they felt hungry in the 10 minutes spent getting from restaurant to minibar.
But what I saw in that lift was the future.
Almost as though it was a Tardis, with a maximum weight load and a button to press if it got stuck between centuries.
The reason the food tasted sweet to my English taste buds was because America had been adding sweeteners to its food for many years.
The story as to how this happened is interesting – because it’s a brilliant example of good intentions going disastrously wrong.
One US President (Dwight Eisenhower, I think) had declared that he didn’t want anyone in America to starve. A brilliant mission statement (much more laudable than JFK’s famous ambition to put a man on the moon). So the country had started a huge programme of subsidising farmers to grow crops.
Which produced a massive excess of food – particularly, corn. Nobody knew what to do with it, until some scientists discovered that you could make fructose out of the corn and from that make a cheap and tasty bulking agent for food stuffs. I.e., it made food production cheaper, therefore making bigger profits for the food companies, but it made the food taste sweeter, so more people wanted to buy it.
Except what it meant was that virtually everybody in America became addicted to eating food with a massive, hidden calorie content.
Including my 3 close friends in the crowded lift.
So, the Government and scientists were half the problem.
But the other half was us. The ad industry.
If you’re old enough, you’ll remember a TV campaign for Milky Way which used the slogan “the sweet you can eat between meals”.
Unbelievably, a mere generation ago, people used to eat at meal-times and only at meal-times. Look at footage of entertainers from the ’50s – like the young Sammy Davis Junior – and you’ll see how astonishingly slim they looked.
And then sugar was added to every food stuff, which made eating an insidiously addictive thing, and we were told we could happily tuck in whenever we wanted to.
So now if you go into a pizza restaurant at any time from 8 am to 2am you will see people effectively eating a full lunch at any time they feel like it.
My large friends in the elevator clearly felt that it was ok to eat cake and ice cream off a plate in a lift.
And rumour has it that exercise bikes in gyms in America will soon have food trays on them.
But the literal weight-gain we see in the obesity epidemic, which is now taking hold in all developed countries, is merely a symbol of our over-consumption of all forms of goods – from cars to shoes to laptops – which is the primary reason why the planet will die over – roughly speaking – the next generation.
Why am I saying this, other than just to make people in advertising feel bad ?
(And for some people, that’s probably a good enough reason.)
Because – while advertising has contributed to the unsustainable levels of consumption which are killing this sweet and mainly blue planet – it might also be able to do something about it.
Unilever, under Paul Polman’s inspired leadership, have their Sustainable Living Plan – which I love like I would love an orphan dog who could do back-rubs and tell jokes – and which has brought about life-changing projects like Lifebuoy’s “Help a Child Reach 5″ in India.
And in my annual trawl through Contagious magazine’s review of the previous year, I saw some other great initiatives.
Like Toyota bringing their logistical expertise to help hurricane victims in New York.
There were huge schemes like Google’s Project Loon, which started bringing internet connectivity to the 4.5 billion people on the planet who need better internet access.
And there were smaller but thoughtful ideas, like Kleenex creating a tool which could predict where flu would be most likely to break out.
Coca-Cola introduced something called Eko-centers – water purification systems operated by specially trained female entrepreneurs recruited from the local community – while also in Singapore producing cans you could rip in half to share.
This last initiative is probably one of the most interesting because we have to adopt new models of more modest consumption.
And in a world where early obsolescence is built into every electronic item and we are encouraged to buy more than we need in every supermarket and consume more than we need in everything from razor blades (3 blades, anyone ?) to toothpaste – (you only need a fraction of what they show in every toothpaste ad) … this is a toughie.
But those 3 globular individuals I saw in the elevator all those years ago represent the most important global challenge there is.
Advertising has to stop encouraging unnecessary consumption. It’s got to stop being part of the problem and start being part of the solution.