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The Consumer Truth: We Don't Buy What's Good for Us

July 20, 1998|KATHY SMITH

There was a time, from the late 1960s to about the mid- 1970s, when "health food" threatened to dominate America's culinary future. A rapidly growing number of people, it seemed, were adding tofu, bean sprouts and wheat germ to their vocabularies, if not also their diets, while vegetarian restaurants began popping up like mushrooms.

So it was that a brilliant young businesswoman opened a health food emporium--which promptly failed, just like most of those vegetarian restaurants. No matter that she'd done everything right, applying the principles she'd learned at the prestigious University of Chicago under Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman. What she'd done wrong, according to a wise friend whose advice she sought, was to listen to what people say with their mouths instead of with their feet.


As she stood at busy intersections, observing human behavior like a sociologist instead of an economist, Robin Rose made a startling discovery: Though people claimed to prefer health food, they were actually spending their money on not-so-healthy treats. And that's how Robin Rose Ice Cream & Chocolate was born and prospered, not on the physiological benefits of organic cucumbers but on the yummy factor of super-premium rocky road.

I was reminded of this instructive story last week, when I heard that Living Fit, a magazine geared to thirtysomething women, had folded. The fact that I had contributed a question-and-answer column to the magazine plays no part in my sadness over its demise. What bothers me is that, once again, what women said they wanted differed from what they supported with their buying dollars.

At its inception, Living Fit appeared to fill a niche created by women who protested endlessly that the teenage and early-20s models displayed on the covers and inside most women's magazines represented an unrealistic image of feminine beauty, one that 99% of us don't look like and never can. Worse, the marketing of these super beauties was said to play a part in a number of maladies that afflict women, ranging from anorexia / bulimia to low self-esteem.


In response, Living Fit was conceived. It featured somewhat older models on its covers and inside, and offered articles on a broad range of subjects that were useful to women who are more attracted to Harrison Ford or Mel Gibson than Leonardo DiCaprio. That's not to say its target audience was women in their rocking-chair years. Absolutely not. The magazine was aimed at healthy, vibrant, alive women who just happened to be on the other side of 18 and presumably wanted an editorial outlook that reflected their maturity.

But after a game run of a few years and then some time on life support, Living Fit had its plug pulled by its publisher, Weider Publications. After all, publishers who intend to stay in business, like manufacturers and retailers, have to give people what they buy, not what they claim to want.

"Our readers love the magazine," associate publisher Kathy Nenneker told me. "They're really loyal to it, and we get great response. But it didn't do as well as it could have at the newsstand."

Why? Because it has to compete for the impulse dollar against other magazines whose covers are adorned with goddess-like models. As a consequence, too few advertisers were willing to buy space for their products.


I suppose I shouldn't be surprised by Living Fit's expiration. For one thing, I've seen other magazines in more or less the same niche, among them Moxie and Lear's, meet the same fate. For another, I know Shape magazine, another publication that thrives on youthful images, invariably suffers whenever it tries to put more realistic models on its cover.

Then, too, I understand that in the weight-loss arena, there's little profit in selling reality. While in truth, losing weight requires an increase in calories burned with a concurrent decrease in calories consumed, those products and plans that succeed wildly are those that promise magic solutions: instant weight loss with little or no effort.

Alas, snake oil is alive and well, image is everything, and sex sells.

Those are the secrets of Madison Avenue. Advertisers know that peddling everything from shoes to cars requires a hip, young image. So what if those images conflict with the common good, or even with what we say we want?

The world will survive the passing of Living Fit. But the occasion should remind us that, as Robin Rose discovered, talk is cheap. Until we put our money where our complaints are, we have only ourselves to blame for what we get.

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