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I have thought about the problem of pleasure a great deal, partly because I am keen on pleasure for myself and partly because it was my job to promise it to other people.  The problem for us in advertising is how to communicate ever greater levels of pleasure. It comes up again and again, day after day, as so many consumer products sell solely on that promise.

We use three basic approaches: pictures of ingredients, users’ reactions (desperate to get it, ecstatic when they do) and analogy—other things that give pleasure (sunshine, cute kids, or even the ad itself). It is tough work. The airwaves are full of competitors offering more pleasure, and the biggest problem is that the consumer often knows these things are bad for them, so we have to justify all the time. Reward yourself, you deserve it, treat yourself, take a break, everyone else is enjoying it, it’s Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day, Hanukkah, Christmas, Halloween; it is natural, organic, fat free, contains real fruit, added vitamins, only 99 calories per slice, only 2 calories per mint, and this special flavour is only available for one month. Faith and I racked our brains for new justifications. We sell pleasure in our ads, but it is hard because what people really want is happiness.

Wisdom is about understanding the difference between pleasure and happiness. Marketing is about blurring the difference. We kept on telling consumers that they deserved pleasure, that they needed pleasure, that pleasure is what makes life worthwhile, but we laboured under the fear that consumers would call our bluff. As an ad executive I pushed it to the back of my mind, but now I see it more starkly.

Most people are willing to give up pleasure today, in order to reap greater happiness tomorrow. People want to ‘be good.’ Addiction distorts and magnifies our perception of pleasure and waylays our good intentions. The ‘pleasure’ under addiction is only the temporary easing of a permanent craving. To achieve a true state of satisfaction and happiness, you have to find a way of curing the craving. Energetically advertising the most titillating foods humankind can concoct does the exact opposite. 

The Xtensity approach tries to unwind the diet ratchet and re-calibrate the pleasure delivered by food down to a healthy level. If the process is successful, the whole importance of food in your life will be brought down several notches. I believe that this is the right thing to do because I believe the food industry has (unintentionally) done us great damage, over many years, by doing the opposite. That is my main defence.

But I do see that the difficulty in promoting the Xtensity approach is that you are asking people to seek less intense pleasure from food. Let’s look at this problem in more detail.

Bath Tub diets often feel obliged to say ‘You can carry on eating all the foods you love.’ For example, Slim-Fast, the meal replacement brand from Unilever, says on their website:

“The Slim-Fast plan … lets you eat three delicious meals and up to three tasty snacks every day. It’s easier to be successful … when you are happy with what you are eating.”

And a bit further on:

“Snack on a virtuous, yet indulgent, Slim-Fast chocolate bar. Does it get any better?”

Well, more than twelve hundred calories a day and not feeling starved would be better than a miniature chocolate bar, in my humble opinion. If you follow the Slim-Fast diet you will not train your body not to crave—you will do exactly the opposite. You will become like a junkie forever in need of a fix. The bars are indulgent, but they go so fast! As your famished body strives to manage on twelve hundred virtuous calories a day, the Slim-Fast chocolate bar will melt on your drooling lips—but it will never satiate your craving. You could eat ten of them and still whimper for more.

People who deal with alcohol addiction do not seem to be so wedded to this indulgent approach. Alcoholics Anonymous do not feel the need to say, ‘You don’t need to give up all the drinks you love; with our new plan you can still get wasted every Friday night.’ They don’t say, ‘There are no good drinks and no bad drinks. No alcohol is bad, all drinks, hard and soft, are fine in moderation. Listen to your body and stop when you feel comfortably drunk—before you see the room spinning and you know you are going to vomit. In this way, you will become a normal social drinker.’ They focus more on the positive benefits—you might yet preserve your marriage and keep your job.

The late Alan Carr wrote a bestseller called Alan Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking13. The essence of his approach is to baldly deny that cigarettes do give any pleasure. He says:

“What am I giving up? Absolutely nothing! The thing that makes it difficult to give up is fear. The fear that we are being deprived of our pleasure or prop. The fear that certain pleasant situations will never be quite the same again.” (Alan Carr’s Easy Way to Stop Smoking, Penguin Books, UK, 1987 page 59)

You could read that paragraph and apply it to intense food. My experience tells me it is true, in the sense that a life spent eating less intense food is not less happy than a life eating more intense food. But it is simply not true that smokers do not experience cigarettes as a pleasure—they give this as the primary reason for continuing to smoke14.

Carr can argue that being a non-smoker is a continual source of happiness (living longer, breathing better, and not being a social pariah) but he actually has the chutzpah to argue that smoking is NOT a pleasure for a smoker. He makes an interesting point about the actual pleasure moment:

“The pathetic thing is that even when smoking a cigarette, the smoker doesn’t achieve the feeling of peace, confidence and tranquillity that the non-smoker has experienced for the whole of his non-smoking life.” (page 66)

Once you separate intense food from Xtense food, and equate intense food with cigarettes, what Carr says about cigarettes again applies perfectly to intense food. If you are permanently trying to lose weight, you never really relax and enjoy food. When you indulge in your favourite food, there is a nagging guilt—even at the moment you are eating it. So the pleasure may be less pure and wonderful than Faith was portraying it. By contrast, if you have regained a normal weight and homeostasis then occasions such as a festive meal become pure, guiltless joy.

Carr’s idea that cigarettes simply relieve withdrawal pangs, like taking off a pair of tight shoes rather than giving a positive pleasure, applies to any addiction. Since non-smokers don’t miss cigarettes and don’t get any great thrill out of smoking a cigarette, it looks like he has a point. People were just as happy in the 1950s, when their diet was much less exotic and varied than it is now. It is just that for a period (and maybe a long period) the craving is still there, and relief from that craving is experienced as pleasure.

In a space of thirty years, the image of cigarettes has gone from glamour to squalor, from intellectual and creative to stupid and dumb, and from offering solace to causing illness. We used to think smoking was sexy. A trail of smoke from a guy’s mouth or nose looked cool to me when I was sixteen, and this image was common in the cigarette ads of the ’70s15. The advertising industry can’t take much credit for the fag’s fall from grace. We helped, eventually, but only once governments banned cigarette advertising and spent on antismoking campaigns. We were wrong then and we are wrong now with our ads for intense food.

Looking on the positive side, smoking has fallen from about 80 percent (of men) in the 1950s to under 25 percent today16. Ex-smokers are all free to go back to smoking. If the nicotine craving cycle does give pleasure, many ex-smokers have voted for less pleasure.

Wisdom is being able to balance the satisfaction of short-run pleasures against the long-run happiness of running your life in the way you want. What makes it difficult is that if you are addicted you physically cannot control your behaviour and run your life the way you want to. My use of Xtense food was, for me, the key step to getting back the control to make the choice that I knew I wanted. Odysseus tied himself to his mast; you can tame your hunger with plain food.


Pleasure & Deprivation

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