Tag Archives: media: propaganda

Is Sugar a Diet Aid? The Answer Depends on the Decade

Last week NPR reported that scientists now trace some of the rise of American obesity to the fear of fat.  Beginning in the 1970s, nutritionists began warning Americans to consume less fat.  This initiated the “low fat” and “fat free” crazes that still linger.

Yet, it now seems that people who followed the advice of nutritionists at the time — to eat less cheese, milk, and meat and more pasta, potatoes, and rice — were likely to get fatter, not skinnier.  The closer a person stuck to the dietary guidelines, the more weight they would gain and, the more weight they gained, the more others would pressure them to stick to the dietary guidelines.  The phrase “cruel irony” only begins to capture it.

The ad below, from 1959, is a peek into another era.  Just a few years before the fear of fat began, the sugar industry was plausibly suggesting that eating more sugar was the best way to stay slim.  This was industry association propaganda, but no doubt the potato and pasta industries contributed to the story in the ’70s just as the meat and dairy industries are in on it today.

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The revision of our nutritional guidelines reminds us to be skeptical of the conventional wisdom.  Moreover, it should inspire us all to check our tendency to judge others.  We don’t have perfect knowledge that allows us perfect control over our bodies.  Scientists are doing the best they can — and hopefully not taking too much funding from for-profit food industries — and individuals are restricted by whatever knowledge and resources they have.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

If There’s a War, We’re Losing It: “Merry Christmas” vs “Happy Holidays”

1I would guess that most of us were unaware of the war on Christmas raging all around us until Bill O’Reilly started reporting from the front. He has since been joined by seasoned war reporters like Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck. I get the sense that they don’t really take themselves very seriously on this one – their war cries often sound like self-parody – and I guess that this attitude gives them license to say much that is silly and incorrect. Which they do.

Still, these Christian warriors may be right about the general decline of Christian hegemony in American culture.  What’s curious is how that historical trend seems out of sync with the historical trend in the war on Christmas. In fact, it looks like there was a similar war on Christmas 60-70 years ago, a war that went unnoticed.

O’Reilly’s war has two important battlegrounds – legal challenges to government-sponsored religious displays, and people saying “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”   He sets the start of the current war in the early years of this century. From Fox News Insider:

“Everything was swell up until about 10 years ago when creeping secularism and pressure from groups like the ACLU began attacking the Christmas holiday. They demanded the word Christmas be removed from advertising and public displays.”

Many people caved in to their demands, creating what O’Reilly has dubbed as the “Happy Holidays” syndrome.

If pushed, O’Reilly might trace the origins of the war back further than that – to the 1960s.  That’s when the secularists and liberals started fighting their long war, at least according to the view from the right.  It was in the 1960s that liberals started winning victories and when the world as we knew it started falling apart. In the decades before that, we took it for granted that America was a White Christian nation.  We all pulled together in World War II without questioning that dominance. And our national religion continued to hold sway in the peaceful and prosperous 1950s. We even added “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance.  And of course, we all celebrated Christmas and said, “Merry Christmas,” no questions asked.

But then came drugs, sex, rock ’n’ roll, protests against an American war, and “God is Dead” on the cover of Time. Worse yet, in 1963 the Supreme Court ruled that the establishment clause of the First Amendment meant that public schools (i.e., government-run schools) could not impose explicitly sectarian rituals on children.  No Bible reading, no Christmas pageants.

The trouble is that even if this history is accurate, it doesn’t have much to do with the War on Christmas, especially “the Happy Holidays syndrome.”  I checked these two phrases at Google Ngrams – a corpus of eight million books.

The first big rise in “Happy Holidays” comes just after the end of World War II.

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From about 1946 to 1954, it increases sixfold. It goes out of fashion as quickly as it came in, and even in the supposedly secular 1960s, it rarely turned up (at least in the books scanned by Google).  The next rise does not begin until the late 1970s, continues through the Reagan and Clinton years.

But just when O’Reilly says the War started, “Happy Holidays” starts to  decline.

And what about “Merry Christmas”?  According to the War reporters, the new secularism of the last ten years has been driving it underground.  But Ngrams tells a different story.

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If there was a time when “Happy Holidays” was replacing “Merry Christmas,” it was in the Greatest Generation era of the 1940s.  Since the late 1970s, when “Happy Holidays” was rising, so was “Merry Christmas.” Apparently, there was just a lot more seasonal spirit to go around.

Perhaps the best way to see the relative presence of the two phrases is to look at the ratio of “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays.”

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In 1937, there were 260 of the religious greeting for every one of the secular.  In the 1940s the ratio plummeted; by the late 1950s it had fallen to about 40 to one.  In the Sixties, “Merry Christmas” makes a slight comeback, then declines again.

By the turn of the century, the forces of “Merry Christmas” are ahead by a ratio of “only” about 18 to one.  Since then – i.e., during the period O’Reilly identifies as war time – the ratio has increased slightly in favor of “Merry Christmas.”

O’Reilly may be right that at least in public greetings – by store clerks, by public officials, and by television networks (even O’Reilly’s Fox) – the secular “Happy Holidays” is displacing the sectarian “Merry Christmas.”  But that still doesn’t explain a similar shift over a half-century ago, another war on Christmas that nobody seemed to notice.

Cross-posted at Montclair SocioBlog.

Jay Livingston is the chair of the Sociology Department at Montclair State University. You can follow him at Montclair SocioBlog or on Twitter.

Militarizing Santa: Then and Now

Since 1958, the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) has entertained kids with an annual Christmas-themed Santa-tracking program.  Kids keep an eye on where in the world Santa is delivering his gifts and everyone thinks it’s jolly.

Well, not this year.  Earlier this month we learned that Santa will be joined by two military fighter jets.  Some objected to the new twist on the tradition, arguing that it militarized Santa, essentially brainwashing kids into romanticizing the ugly necessity of defense and the aggression of war.

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Is it pro-U.S. military propaganda?

If it is, it’s nothing new.  Ben Ostrowsky sent us this World War II-era propaganda poster. It was part of a series produced by the labor union and corporation-led War Production Board in 1942.  The aim was to engage as many civilians and companies in weapon production as they could.  ”Santa Claus has gone to War!” it exclaims.  Maybe he needs those fighter jets along for the ride after all.

1P.S. In case anyone is still debating: this proves not only that Santa Claus is white, but that he’s an American too.  Team America!

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

Marijuana: A Short History of Changes in Law and Public Opinion

A guiding principle driving the sociological understanding and analysis of deviance is the recognition that behaviors themselves are not inherently deviant; rather it is the social perceptions and reactions to a behavior that makes a particular behavior deviant.  This explains why opinions and attitudes towards different forms of supposedly deviant behaviors regularly change.  A notable change in one type of deviance, using marijuana, is revealed in a report compiled by the Pew Research Center.

According to David F. Musto, a century ago marijuana was an obscure drug used almost exclusively by Hispanics in the Southwest.  Its limited association with this ethnic group is largely why marijuana initially became illegal.  With the onset of the Great Depression, both federal and state governments sought ways to expel nonwhites from the country as their cheap labor was no longer necessary.  Making one of this group’s pastimes illegal was a way to stigmatize Hispanics and rally public support for a population transfer.  With a populace stirred into a moral panic by racism, nativism and propaganda movies like Reefer Madness, there was little resistance to the 1937 Marijuana Tax Act which effectively made cannibas illegal.

In the 1960s marijuana experienced a cultural comeback when it became the drug of choice for baby-boomers who saw the drug as a safer alternative to the alcohol and methamphetamine that plagued their parents’ generation.  Marijuana was even legal for a brief period after the Supreme Court found the 1937 marijuana act unconstitutional.  However, because of widespread concern that drugs were corrupting the moral fabric of America’s youth, in 1970 marijuana was one of many drugs outlawed by President Nixon’s Comprehensive Drug Abuse Prevention and Control Act.  Interestingly, marijuana was the only drug targeted by this act that did not include a medical exception.  In the 1980s, President Reagan increased penalties for breaking drug laws, and subsequently the prison population in the United States swelled to a size seemingly unimaginable in a wealthy democracy.

The graph below from PEW’s report captures how federal action came during times of heightened public support to make marijuana illegal.

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Yet, the graph also captures how in the early 1990s, support for the legalization of marijuana started to increase.  According to the PEW report, around this time California pioneered using the drug for medicinal purposes; seventeen other states (including D.C.) have since followed California’s lead while six other states decriminalized possession of small amounts.  In 2012, citizens in Colorado and Oregon voted to completely legalize marijuana despite federal law.  This relaxing and even elimination of marijuana laws mirrors favorable opinions of marijuana and growing support for its legalization.

It is difficult to tell if legalization, medical or otherwise, drives public opinion or vice-versa.  Regardless, an especially noteworthy finding of the PEW report is that right now, more than half of the United States’ citizens think marijuana should be legal.  Sociologists always take interest when trend lines cross in public opinion polls because the threshold is especially important in a majority-rule democracy; and the PEW report finds for the first time in the history of the poll, a majority of U.S. citizens support marijuana legalization.

This historical research data on opinions about marijuana reveals how definitions of deviance, and in many cases the ways those definitions are incorporated into the legal system, grow out of shared social perceptions.  Although there have been some notable genetic and cultivation advances, marijuana has changed relatively little in the last forty years; yet our perceptions of this drug (and therefore its definitions of use as deviant) regularly evolve and we can expect opinions, and therefore our laws, to further change in the future.

Jason Eastman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Coastal Carolina University who researches how culture and identity influence social inequalities.

Carrot, War Hero

Food shortages during World War II required citizens and governments to get creative, changing the gastronomical landscape in surprising ways.   Many ingredients that the British were accustomed to were unavailable.  Enter the carrot.

According to my new favorite museum, the Carrot Museum, carrots were plentiful, but the English weren’t very familiar with the root.  Wrote the New York Times in 1942: ”England has a goodly store of carrots. But carrots are not the staple items of the average English diet. The problem…is to sell the carrots to the English public.”

So the British government embarked on a propaganda campaign designed to increase dependence on carrots.  It linked carrot consumption to patriotism, disseminated recipes, and made bold claims about the carrot’s ability to improve your eyesight (useful considering they were often in blackout conditions).

Here’s a recipe for Carrot Fudge:

You will need:

  • 4 tablespoons of finely grated carrot
  • 1 gelatine leaf
  • orange essence or orange squash
  • a saucepan and a flat dish

Put the carrots in a pan and cook them gently in just enough water to keep them covered, for ten minutes. Add a little orange essence, or orange squash to flavour the carrot. Melt a leaf of gelatine and add it to the mixture. Cook the mixture again for a few minutes, stirring all the time. Spoon it into a flat dish and leave it to set in a cool place for several hours. When the “fudge” feels firm, cut it into chunks and get eating!

Disney created characters in an effort to help:

The government even used carrots as part of an effort to misinform their enemies:

…Britain’s Air Ministry spread the word that a diet of carrots helped pilots see Nazi bombers attacking at night. That was a lie intended to cover the real matter of what was underpinning the Royal Air Force’s successes: the latest, highly efficient on board,  Airborne Interception Radar, also known as AI.

When the Luftwaffe’s bombing assault switched to night raids after the unsuccessful daylight campaign, British Intelligence didn’t want the Germans to find out about the superior new technology helping protect the nation, so they created a rumour to afford a somewhat plausible-sounding explanation for the sudden increase in bombers being shot down… The Royal Air Force bragged that the great accuracy of British fighter pilots at night was a result of them being fed enormous quantities of carrots and the Germans bought it because their folk wisdom included the same myth.

But here’s the most fascinating part.

It turns out that, exactly because of the rationing, British people of all classes ate healthier.

…many poor people had been too poor to feed themselves properly, but with virtually no unemployment and the introduction of rationing, with its fixed prices, they ate better than in the past.

Meanwhile, among the better off, rationing reduced the intake of unhealthy foods.  There were very few sweets available and people ate more vegetables and fewer fatty foods.  As a result “…infant mortality declined and life expectancy increased.”

I love carrots. I’m eating them right now.

To close, here are some kids eating carrots on a stick:

Via Retronaut.  For more on life during World War II, see our posts on staying off the phones and carpool propaganda (“When You Ride ALONE, You Ride With Hitler!”) and our coverage of life in Japanese Internment Camps, women in high-tech jobs, the demonization of prostitutes, and the German love/hate relationship with jazz.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College and the author of Gender: Ideas, Interactions, Institutions, with Myra Marx Ferree. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.