The Rhetoric of Health Marketing
This past year, I’ve learned so much about growth. I’ve cut out toxic habits, toxic people, and toxic mindsets. I’ve learned that health is a holistic journey that’s not only about diet and exercise, but about providing both the mind and body with the care and love that they need.
That being said, I will stare at my phone for hours at a time and there is simply no way in hell that I’m changing that during a global pandemic, no matter how toxic it is. Eat me, #ScreenTimeChallenge.
Just another Instagram ad
Yesterday while mindlessly scrolling through Instagram I came across an ad for a product that I have seen advertised before, but for the first time it caught my attention and I stopped. The ad was a before and after weight loss picture of a woman with the words “This is empowering” written above the photos. The caption said something like “I can’t believe I waited so long to try Sarah’s Discovery, it really worked!” So what is Sarah’s Discovery?
The most seemingly non-biased information that I could find on it was in this article which is less about the pill itself and more about the scam. Though it is absolutely infuriating, it’s also pretty genius. The company hires* women on Twitter or Instagram meme pages to share “their stories” (or more likely, a strangers’ before and after picture) that explains how they were able to lose weight on this plan, and provides a link to a fake news source called “Healthy News Center.” The article (which, by the way, is the only thing on the website) shares a fake interview about a woman who used a pill called “Ketovita” to lose weight quickly. So what’s Ketovita?
Another GREAT question!
There is little to no information about Ketovita that is not an ad. One thing to note is that on none of these ads is there mention of the FDA, because it does not have FDA approval. In fact, try Googling “Ketovita FDA” and your first result will be an article on FDA.gov titled “Beware of Products Promising Miracle Weight Loss.” Sounds legit.
The most information I could find on what this pill actually is, is that it is probably a Forskolin-based pill. Forskolin is made from the root of a plant, and little research has been done on its effects on the body. Though more research needs to be done, some reported negative reactions to Forskolin include flushing, fast heart beats, low blood pressure, upper respiratory tract irritation, cough, tremor, and restlessness when inhaled, stinging of the eyes and enlarging of the blood vessels in the eyes, and headache.
Too bad your eyes will be too swollen to see how HOT you look when you lose those 4 pounds!
(By the way, please keep in mind that all of the above is about one specific method of marketing for one specific brand of diet pill. There are thousands on the market, in 2015 Americans spent $2 billion on weight loss supplements. So while it may not be “Sarah’s Discovery,” whichever ad is coming up on your media of choice is just the same scheme with a different name.)
Why are we talking about this again?
Look, the sentiment of this story is nothing new. There are thousands of articles, op-eds, and blog posts about the dangers of diet pills, not to mention all of the actual scientific data to support those claims. What is new is the audience that they are targeting to.
While writing this I scrolled through Instagram trying to find these ads, and found that they were only being posted by accounts like “CrazyBitchProbs” or “BoozyBetch” but never on pages with names like “Thirty Flirty and Thriving.” They are marketing to young women of Gen-Z.
How is Gen-Z any different?
These teens-to-20-somethings are too young to remember the extreme-slim bulimia craze made famous by stars like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. They won’t remember when Kate Moss got busted for using coke to stay slim, so the industry turned to diet pills and steroids. They won’t remember when Anna Nicole Smith died of an overdose from mixing prescriptions, including diet pills and over-the-counter diet supplements like Slim Fast, after getting buttocks injections. And though just last year Jessica Simpson opened up about her 20-year addiction to diet pills, Gen-Z doesn’t know her as the household name that millennials do.
Gen-Z has also been raised in an extremely “health conscious” environment.
The new “health” market
Perhaps as a response to the generation that saw unhealthy habits range from “Supersize Me” to the aforementioned bulimia fad, over the last few years people have become obsessed with their health.
In 2018, the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit focused on research in preventative health and wellness, found that the fitness/mind-body market was worth $595 billion, and in 2019 their research (which broadened the scope of that segment to the “physical activity economy”) was valued at $828.2 billion globally.
Did you know that as of 2016 there is a term for being impulsively obsessed with healthy eating? It is called “Orthorexia Nervosa” and is defined as “a pathological fixation on eating only foods that are considered to be healthy and pure” and it “is unique among the eating disorders since it does not carry the negative connotations of anorexia or obesity associated with “losing control.”” (If you are all all interested in this, I highly recommend you read the article linked above — it’s fascinating.)
Along with this new market comes a new rhetoric
The first three sentences of this article are the setup for a joke. But I would bet that you’ve read blog posts before that used similar language earnestly. And why shouldn’t they! Everyone wants to be healthy, health is a good thing, and that is fact. However, it is the many different definitions of “health” where fact blurs into opinion. Some “health” tips use words like “fasting, training, and calories” while some use words like “self-care, rest, and energy.”
Remember, the ad that caught my attention at the beginning of this story? Across the top were written the words: “This is empowering.”
It’s a strong word.
It’s also a word with multiple definitions, and used in multiple contexts.
Merriam-Webster defines ‘empower’ as a verb in three ways:
- to give official authority or legal power to
- to enable def. 1
- to promote the self-actualization or influence of
In one aspect, it is a word that has become synonymous with historical context. With the 1976 publication of Black Empowerment: Social Work in Oppressed Communities by Barbara Solomon, the word began to be used in the context of “research and intervention concerning marginalized groups such as African Americans, women, gays and lesbians, and people with disabilities.” Since then it has also has been picked up by perhaps less inspiring industries, such as self-help books and get-rich-quick schemes.
It is also another word that can be used in the context of health. People will often see health — mental, physical, or holistic — not as its own goal, but rather as a means to their goal of finding empowerment. It is the sole reason that many people seek out therapy. If you don’t believe me, go to scholar.google.com and look up scholarly articles containing the words “therapy” and “empowerment.” I got 282,000 results, but maybe there will be more by the time you do it.
So why did this particular ad strike something inside of me so powerful that I spent all day researching diet pills and the history of the word “empowerment”?
The word empowerment is powerful. It is a word that has been (and is still being) used against the oppressions of marginalized groups. It is used to give hope to those trying to better themselves and their lives through seeking help.
And it does not deserve to be diminished to a word used to sell diet pills.
When we regularly see impactful words used in remarkably boring circumstances, it can reduce the significance of the word itself. This story is not going to influence anyone selling diet pills to cut the word “empowering” out of their marketing plans. However, Gen-Z and future generations targeted by these ads deserve to have still have language that is impactful. There are words that are too effective to let something as commonplace as an Instagram ad minimize their potency.
So please, dear reader, do not let ads, posts, or any of the million other forms of media we take in desensitize you to words that matter.
And there’s no judgement if you continue to stare at your phone.
A note to the reader:
I am not a nutritionist, therapist, or health expert in any way. If this story stirred up any interest to learn more on any of the matters of health discussed above, I encourage that you do so with a professional.
*By the way, if you happen to see a “Sarah’s Discovery” ad in your feed, you should know that the person sharing them is probably making $15 per post (or at least they were as of 2018) in order to sell you something that can cause addiction, long-term effects, and death by overdose.
Unfollow the motherfucker.