Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Guest Post: A ridiculous burger

As you are probably aware, this is a time of transition for Veritas Health. I just completed my Master's degree from Harvard School of Public Health and am moving back to the San Francisco Bay Area to begin a new phase in my public health career.

Interviewing and packing has been taking up a lot of my time these past few weeks - so I am extremely grateful to Jessica Yen, who serendipitously offered to write a guest post for VH. Jessica is a great friend and public health colleague and I hope that you enjoy her writing and insights as much as I do!
- Katelyn Mack

A Ridiculous Burger
by Jessica Yen

The other day my roommate saw a report that Lotteria, a fast food chain restaurant in Japan, has a new ten-layered hamburger called the “Cheeseburger Tower.”  Ten slices of cheese alternating between ten beef patties, the burger will subtract ten dollars from your wallet and add ten points to your cholesterol level. 

The ad claims that they created the Cheeseburger Tower in response to customer demand, but really now – I’d like to have seen those focus groups!  And although one would hope that such a menu item could not possibly catch on among Japanese consumers, it’s the broader health implications that worry this household of self-professed public health nerds.

To me, a burger like this is not a reasonable business proposition but a marketing gimmick to generate free publicity.  After all, if newspapers start covering your outrageous new menu item, it will draw curious customers who want to see what all the fuss is about, and it will increase the “recognition factor” of your brand. 

In and of itself this is not too threatening, but what happens if some customers actually do start developing a taste for gulping down a week’s worth of protein in one meal?  Meat is expensive, so any business model that sells Cheeseburger Towers will have to rely on high volume if the company wants to turn a profit.  This means more customers eating way too much protein, fat and salt in one sitting.

Or what happens if other companies feel pressured to follow suit?  What if every fast food chain starts adding super-sized burgers to their menus?  The rest of the menu items are going to look smaller in contrast, which makes it tempting to increase the overall portions of everything on the menu and just charge a little extra.  It’s the super size effect all over again, and it’s potent because it changes what consumers think is a reasonable portion.  It’s why stores like Saks highlight $20,000 dresses in their catalogues – not because they actually expect anybody to buy a dress with a halter made of diamonds, but because when compared to a $20,000 dress, all of a sudden dropping 1K on an evening gown doesn’t feel quite so unreasonable.  Similarly, a 10-layered cheeseburger has the potential to distort what we think of as a “normal” amount of meat in a burger. 

You can see this at play in the advertisement itself.  Look to the bottom to the “double decker” and “triple decker” they’re offering – basically $1 for each additional layer, and hey, doesn’t a triple decker seem like a good idea after staring down the original ten-layered cheeseburger?

The impact of shifts in what is considered a “normal” portion size, no matter how small, are cumulative because we eat three meals every day.  If the idea of what is a normal portion size increases, just a little, the effect gets amplified over the course of a month, a year, five years.  It’s how an obesity epidemic can creep up on a nation, because just like the frog in the pot of water, the shift is so gradual that we don’t even notice it happening.
I don’t think that one restaurant selling one Cheeseburger Tower is going to automatically dampen Japan’s high life expectancy, but we can’t be too complacent, either.  Hopefully the rest of the world has learned a couple lessons from the American obesity epidemic and how our food portions are out of control.  Consumers can also stay away from these restaurants so that competitors don’t feel the need to copycat this burger with other stunt menu items of their own.  The media could choose not to cover stories of a ten-layered burger (this post is a critical analysis and not an advertisement!).  

What do you think?  What else can we do?

Jessica Yen is interested in all things related to food, and has spent five years working on nutrition and food-related issues with community organizations, like Boston's  the Food Project and individuals across the nation.  She recently graduated from the Harvard School of Public Health, and looks forward to diving back into the foodie scene now that her days as a poor graduate student are finished.

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