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The State and Consumer Desire: The Case of Doughnuts and Soda

The New York Times captured these doughnut fans at the New York City Doughnut Day gathering.

Last week New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg drew the ire of numerous pundits for proposing a ban on sodas over 16 ounces, a move that once again underscored the profound social and political consequence of food consumption, its complicated relationship with state policies, and the rhetorical power of “consumer choice” ideologies.  The tone of these critiques predictably revolves around the state’s effort to “control” everyday consumer freedom.  George Will, for instance, blasted the proposal as an “irritable gesture” that is “the essence of contemporary liberalism” in its apparent ambition to “fine tune all your behavior.”  Will saw the policing of foodways as simply one more element in a liberal conspiracy to dictate all consumer choices, from light bulbs to automobiles.  The New York Daily News likewise whined about Bloomberg’s “big brother” reach into the lives of smokers, soda drinkers, and a variety of “sin consumers” who break with public health standards if not moral decrees that aspire to manage or reject certain consumer goods.

The industry’s strongest response came from the Center for Consumer Freedom, a fast food and restaurant lobby dedicated to protecting “our basic freedoms—the freedom to buy what we want, eat what we want, drink what we want, and raise our children as we see fit,” freedoms under attack from a “growing cabal of activists” that “include self-anointed `food police,’ health campaigners, trial lawyers, personal-finance do-gooders, animal-rights misanthropes, and meddling bureaucrats.”   They ran a full-page ad in the New York Times that rhetorically cast such restrictions as social engineering and an attack on consumer freedoms and personal responsibility and arguing that “Study after study has demonstrated that soda is not a unique contributor to obesity.”  Blogger Erica Holloway railed on the “nanny state” and argued that “there’s no research to show ingesting soda alone takes years off your life,” but if there are health implications to consuming sugary drinks she suggested that “If we accept that Darwin was right, then let his theory pan out.”  Huffington Post’s Bettina Elias Siegel ambivalently supported the idea of encouraging healthy consumption choices, but she feared that Bloomberg’s proposal was “coercive” and “paternalistic” and perhaps more likely to “fuel resentment” than change public health and consumption.

Despite these relatively shallow defenses of the free market and consumer choice, Bloomberg was nearly symbolically undone by following his soda proposal a day later with the declaration that June 1st was officially New York City Doughnut Day.  One woman at an Entenmann’s doughnut giveaway at Madison Square Park acknowledged that she was struggling to keep off 30 pounds even as she eagerly ate four free doughnuts, but of the soda proposal and doughnut day she indicated that “`It’s crazy.  It’s not consistent.’”  Another man hoping to lose 40 pounds despite eating a box of doughnuts at a time, concluded that “`It’s sort of a messed-up move.  It’s like an oxymoron. Maybe he’s thinking it’s two different things, that more people consume the drinks than the doughnuts. I mean, everyone gets thirsty. You don’t actually have to have a doughnut.’”

Bloomberg took his case for the large soda restrictions to the Today show.

Bloomberg was most prominently grilled about the timing by Today’s Matt Lauer, who suggested that “It sounds ridiculous,” to which Bloomberg responded that “one doughnut’s not going to hurt you.  In moderation, most things are okay.”  Bloomberg’s defense of the awkward timing of the soda proposal followed by doughnut day was a bit clumsy, but he was onto something about how desire is invested in doughnuts in a very different way than it is projected onto soda.  Bloomberg was championing a long-established notion that a doughnut is a “treat,” a maneuver that distinguishes doughnuts from everyday foodways, which apparently includes soda.  Bloomberg is correct that doughnuts are distinctive foods in the ways they materialize desire and are often consciously viewed as a break from dominant bodily disciplines.  Doughnuts are foods of powerful desire in large part because they are significant in so many dimensions of everyday life:  Doughnuts figure prominently in church life, for instance, where post-service meals routinely feature doughnuts; countless little leaguers and bands have sold doughnuts for decades; people have enormously strong ties to particular doughnut chains or local bakeries; and scores of people have powerful memories of their families and friends bonding over doughnuts or congregating in doughnut shops.  Yet doughnuts often have been constructed as “forbidden” and violations of bodily discipline, so even people eating doughnuts recognize that their consumption is a break with dominant disciplines.  In fact, that forbidden desire associated with doughnuts in many ways makes their consumption a more powerful experience.

Doughnuts remain largely defined as a “treat” and consciously considered to be outside most consumers’ everyday foodways, but soda is a staple of many Americans’ diets and has ironically become somewhat invisible because of its ubiquity.  Plenty of people have very strong feelings about their own favorite sodas, and numerous folks spend more time consuming soda than doughnuts, but they consume soda without a lot of self consciousness while doughnuts are consciously recognized as disciplinary affronts.   Soda has perhaps become part of a host of unarticulated, everyday foodways that have resisted much articulate reflection.  There is also an interesting material dimension to the most prodigious sodas; that is, perhaps Bloomberg was among the observers whose attention was literally grabbed by the prodigious materiality of a Super Big Gulp, a mammoth keg weighing in at 44 ounces (the X-Treme Gulp packs an astounding 52 ounces).  Bloomberg took aim on drinks over 16 ounces, and such over-sized sodas are massive material objects that are unlikely to escape attention.

The most spurious of all these defenses of “consumer choice” is the argument that the government should not regulate consumption.  This resistance to the “nanny state” argues that as consumers we all recognize the hoodwinks of mass marketing and can exercise “personal responsibility” and reflective decision-making over our consumption choices.  Yet the government has always protected consumers against unscrupulous marketers and advertising misrepresentations.  In the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for instance, Progressives spearheaded legislation such as the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act, which regulated dangerously adulterated medications hawked through deceptive advertising claims.  Legislators in the wake of the Progressive movement were persistently leery of interfering with business profits and the “free market,” but the Depression compelled the state to rethink how the government could ensure stable markets.  The Depression resulted in a state that became committed to policing consumer space, but it was not to simply eliminate particular behaviors: rather, it hoped to ensure Americans had sufficient income to be members of consumer culture and that the marketplace provided them sufficient information to make thoughtful consumer decisions.  The New Deal committed the federal government to protecting citizens’ economic rights by addressing unemployment and poverty and stabilizing markets by addressing nearly every dimension of consumer life and introducing many pricing regulations (e.g., establishing fair consumer cost in comparison to farmers’ price).  Ultimately, though, there was a significant backlash to consumer collectivism that linked it to communist sympathies and grassroots movements, many of which were driven by women.  Fearing the consumer movement’s political and labor connections, its grassroots support, and the prominence of women, conservatives accused consumer movements of launching an attack on free enterprise that is not much different than the one sounded by the likes of George Will as he defends soda and minor vices.  Wartime organizations like the Office of Price Administration had directed rigorous sanctioning and price controls during the war, but afterward many Americans felt they had earned a higher standard of living, and producers resisted what they considered an invasive regulatory state.  In 1946, the electorate returned the Republicans to control of the Congress, and a wave of conservatives significantly loosened state control of private manufacturing.

Bloomberg is on solid ground distinguishing between doughnuts and soda as very different kinds of foods, but it is a complicated distinction between different sorts of bodily desire, and in fact it is hard to see eating a doughnut or drinking a cold Coke as anything other than a bodily experience that cannot be captured in language or absolutely controlled by external directives from parents, medical authorities, or the state.  The public health impact of changing such foodways is potentially tremendous, and there is substantial evidence that mass foodways have a profoundly consequential impact on our collective lives, so while the Center for Consumer Freedom rails for personal responsibility some public figures like Bloomberg need to advocate for social responsibility to all our neighbors.  Bloomberg deserves some credit for trying to make everyday foodways more visible, but he may underestimate the rhetorical power of the “free market” and “consumer choice,” the ways such ideologies can stand in the way of thoughtful consumption, or the sway of food desire.