Major food corporations face a quandary. They are under Wall Street’s constant profit-growth pressure, but they can’t substantially raise product prices because the food market is so cost-sensitive. Therefore, to entice us to spend even more on eating, Big Food has lately been trying to extend the biological limits of consumption by challenging one of the most basic structures of American culture: the traditional meal schedule.
For the last few decades, food companies had aimed their marketing at single meals, pushing to inflate portion sizes. That initiative was wildly successful. As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently reported, the average restaurant meal in the United States is now an unfathomable four times larger than it was in 1950. That has translated into “Americans now consum(ing) 2,700 calories a day, about 500 calories more than 40 years ago,” according to the Atlantic Monthly.
One predictable result of this trend is an obesity rate that’s poised to top 40 percent and that already costs the nation hundreds of billions of dollars in additional healthcare expenditures. The other result is that the super-size campaign has become a victim of its own success. Indeed, food companies are coming to realize that, in terms of per-meal product sales, they are quickly approaching the point where the human body simply cannot -- or will not -- accommodate any more calories in a single sitting. That has left Big Food fretting about a profit-making path forward, and that's where the innovators at Yum! Brands come in.
Known for ignoring public health concerns and pioneering weapons-grade junk food, this conglomerate's subsidiaries have most recently given us the cheeseburger-stuffed pizza (Pizza Hut), the Dorito-shelled taco (Taco Bell), and the "Double Down" (KFC) -- a bacon and cheese sandwich that replaces bread with slabs of deep-fried chicken. So it should come as no surprise that with the three meals hitting their caloric max-out point, Yum! Brands has been leading the effort to add a whole new gorging session to America's daily schedule.
The campaign is called “fourth meal” and was originally launched in a series of Taco Bell spots telling kids that "everyone is a fourth mealer -- some just don't know it yet." Now, new "fourth meal" ads are once again popping up all over television, insisting that "sometimes the best dinner is after dinner." The ads are backed by an eponymous website and a "cravinator" smartphone app that helps binge eaters select their junk food of choice.
Though the "fourth meal" campaign has been ongoing since 2006, it is particularly notable today because it proves that such marketing will persist even as the obesity epidemic becomes a full-fledged headline-grabbing emergency. And it persists, of course, because these kinds of ads are wholly unregulated and tend to deliver for the food industry.
Social science data illustrates that latter truism. In 2010 and 2011, for instance, researchers from Yale University and Texas A&M University both found that fast-food ads successfully change kids' eating expectations and shape their culinary desires. Likewise, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently reported "that greater familiarity with fast-food restaurant advertising on television is associated with obesity" likely because kids who see the ads develop "food consumption patterns that include many types of high-calorie food brands" being advertised.
In terms of cultural change, then, Yum! Brands is making a shrewd long-term investment in an eating revolution. Sure, it may for now seem like a stretch. But when the next obese generation believes "fourth meal" is equal to breakfast, lunch and dinner, don't be surprised -- and don't ask why. The answer is on your television set, your Web browser and your smartphone screen.