Populating grocery store aisles with its easily recognizable green containers, Activia (a probiotic yogurt) claims to help regulate the digestive system in fourteen days. The commercial success of this functional food product reveals intersections among discourses of digestion, gendered eating, ideal bodies, nutrition, health, and food pharmaceuticals, as eaters navigate an increasingly medicalized foodscape. This paper draws from print and online advertisements, product packaging, press coverage, and industry reports, as well as a variety of secondary sources that analyze digestion as a cultural act. From the naked, flat stomachs prominently featured in advertisements to the heart-shaped icons used to navigate its website, this paper also demonstrates how Activia constructs digestion and freedom from constipation as components of an idealized, white, middle to upper class, female identity.
Les produits de marque Activia se distinguent aisément sur les tablettes par leurs emballages verts facilement reconnaissables. Le yogourt probiotique de la même marque prétend pouvoir régulariser la digestion, et ce, en quatorze jours. Comme ce produit a connu un franc succès commercial, cela indique, entre autres, un recoupement entre les discours axés sur la digestion, les idéaux corporels, la nutrition, la santé et les produits pharmaceutiques alimentaires. De plus en plus, les consommateurs doivent désormais choisir parmi des produits alimentaires aux propriétés thérapeutiques ou « médicales » des plus diversifiées. Cette étude analyse un corpus de publicités traditionnelles et électroniques, d’emballages, de communiqués de presse, de rapports industriels, ainsi que de références qui portent sur la digestion comme acte culturel. L’étude révèle qu’Activia, par l’entremise de sa campagne publicitaire, associe la digestion régularisée et l’absence de constipation comme des idéaux à atteindre pour un public féminin idyllique, de classe supérieure et de race blanche.
Corps de l’article
Often considered a taboo topic in the United States, the promotion and popularity of Activia, a probiotic yogurt launched in the U.S. in 2006, has in some ways opened a dialogue among American women on regularity, digestion, and constipation. Sold internationally since 1987, Activia is now widely available in supermarkets across the United States. Made in a slew of flavours by Parisian yogurt producer, Dannon, and packaged in four-ounce servings in eye-catching green containers, Activia claims to help regulate the digestive system in two weeks’ time. Priced higher than most yogurts and described as “a blockbuster product” in the United States, Activia sales exceeded $130 million in its first year, considered a “very unusual success” for a new food product. Despite cautionary consumer warnings and less than certain research results regarding the efficacy of probiotics, U.S. Activia sales increased by an additional 50 percent in 2007. In 2013, the Activia product line in the United States included seven probiotic yogurts from low-calorie and high fibre versions to smoothies. The newest product, Activia Greek, taps into the increasingly widespread popularity of Greek yogurt in the United States and aims to compete with yogurt competitors, such as Chobani.
Studies exploring gendered perceptions of food often consider yogurt a feminine comestible. Furthermore, Dannon states that they have only ever marketed their products to women. As a functional food sold to appease digestive ills, the female-focused marketing of Activia provides a new and different opportunity to analyze gender in Dannon’s marketing tactics. This paper analyzes a variety of secondary sources, as well as the marketing, press coverage, and industry reports for this popular functional food. This analysis reveals intersections among discourses of digestion, gendered eating, nutrition, health, and food pharmaceuticals.
Functional Foods, Probiotics and the Sensations of Gendered Digestion
Activia is a functional food and probiotic yogurt. As with many other food-based health claims, however, there is no regulated definition for functional foods in the United States. Generally they are defined as foods that provide some health benefit beyond basic nutritional needs. In turn, while there are multiple definitions for probiotics, they are most commonly defined as, “Live microorganisms which when consumed in adequate amounts as part of food confer a health benefit on the host.” Even though U.S. law does not define them, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates functional foods, as well as the health claims that they are permitted to make on food labels. Furthermore, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regulates fraudulent practices in the marketplace. In 2010, the Dannon Company, Inc. settled for $21 million the FTC’s charges of deceptive advertising that one daily serving of Activia “relieves temporary irregularity” or “helps with slow intestinal transit time.” The FTC ruled that Activia’s digestive claims must “convey that three servings of Activia yogurt must be eaten each day to obtain these benefits” and that “Dannon may claim that eating fewer than three servings a day provides these benefits only if the company is relying on two well-designed human clinical studies substantiating that the claim is true.”
As both a functional food and probiotic yogurt that is subject to multiple government regulations, Activia provides more than sustenance and good taste. It claims the health benefit of helping to regulate the digestive system. Market expansion of functional foods more generally suggests that consumers increasingly seek out foods offering health benefits. As Nelya Koteyko and Brigitte Nerlich argue in their discourse analysis of probiotic web advertising, the expansion of the functional food market reveals a trend in which consumers “seek knowledge about benefits rather than just avoid risks.” Thus, the consumption of probiotics occurs within a larger discourse of health promotion and disease prevention. Eating an Activia yogurt at breakfast emerges as a proactive step toward better health, grounded in technology and science.
With respect to Activia yogurt in particular, however, product advertising softens the role of science for the lay public. While most all yogurts contain live cultures, Activia yogurt contains Bifidobacterium animalis DN-173 010, a strain that Dannon trademarked as the aptly renamed Bifidus regularis. With this new name, Activia yogurt retains the credibility of microbiology. By literally including the word “regular” in the bacteria’s naming convention, however, it also communicates in a simple way the product’s objective to promote regularity.
The study of digestion also contributes a unique perspective to the topic of food and the senses. For example, in her study of “the peristaltic subject,” English professor Jean Walton builds upon Brian Massumi’s three sensory systems of perception “through which we take in, and act upon, sensory data.” While the exteroceptive senses, such as sight, sound, and touch, are more straightforward and commonplace in studies of food and the senses, proprioception (the body’s incorporation of sensory data into rational muscular memory) and interoception (visceral sensibility) are less commonly explored aspects. Interoception is applicable to this study of Activia yogurt, as this food product seeks to rationally organize and govern the sensory experience of the gut and digestive system.
Beyond the interoception sensory system, digestion takes on a linguistic shape and orientation. A properly functioning digestive system and process emphasizes passage, flow, movement, and motility, while a malfunctioning and constipated system is blocked, backed up, and bloated. Walton addresses these opposing states of movement and being in her reading of two 20th-century medical texts on digestion, in which she states,
It was up to us to provide the necessary fulcrum by making sure that we selected just exactly the correct part of the world to ingest, and thus to direct on its way through ourselves. Otherwise, the movement of the world through us might either reverse in direction, or come to a stop.
In Walton's description, digestion and the sensations related to it interact with the world around us, tap into a grander sense of directional flow, and exist within an overarching frame of balance and rightness. When gastrointestinal distress interrupts this orientation, problems ensue.
Medical literature indicates that digestive problems possess a gendered dimension. While it is unclear why, many functional gastrointestinal disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), occur significantly more often in women. While it is difficult to ascertain how many Americans suffer from IBS, medical experts writing in the Harvard Women’s Health Watch suggest that women experience it twice as often as men. Bringing unexpected and painful physical symptoms, IBS also results in emotional distress over one’s lack of control over bowel habits. Both women’s health physicians and scholars of digestion argue that this distress affects women more than men. For example, physician Lin Chang and colleagues write,
Women are taught that bodily functions are something to be kept private and secret as compared to men…for women, bowel functioning becomes a source of shame and embarrassment more so than it does for men...Women often score higher on indices of bloating and constipation. Society’s focus on how women look, and its perpetuation of thinness as a necessary standard of attractiveness may lead women to experience bloating not only as a source of physical discomfort, but of psychological distress.
While the medical community recognizes these social implications, Walton argues that little scholarship explores “how bowel ‘regularity’ becomes one of the means by which women exercise ‘control’ in their daily lives.” Amy Vidali provides one such example as she explores the rhetoric of gastrointestinal (GI) disorders from a disability studies perspective. Within her study, she analyzes the “rhetorics of cure and control” in GI-related product advertising, including Activia. As she demonstrates, Activia marketing both constructs rhetoric of control and attempts to provide female consumers with a sense of control, both physically and within a larger social context.
Gendered Digestion: A Historical Perspective
Activia is a food product developed and marketed to assuage digestive ills, physical maladies that have a reasonably long and socially driven history in the United States. In Inner Hygiene: Constipation and the Pursuit of Health in Modern Society (2000), James Whorton chronicles the “culture of constipation” that emerged in the United States, England, and Europe in the 19th century. A bodily issue with health implications, physicians, reformers, and lay people viewed constipation as linked to “spiritual, moral, and emotional well-being.” Fueled by these concerns, constipation cures abounded, including special diets, laxatives, abdominal exercises, and even surgical options. The early 20th-century gospel of New Nutrition encouraged consumption of “roughage” to ensure gastrointestinal health. In the age of healthism and healthy eating guidelines in the 1970s and 1980s, fibre took the pulpit as a subtler saviour that ensured digestive regularity.
This historical culture of constipation is clearly evident in 21st-century bowel habits and the availability of functional food products, such as Activia. For example, before Activia launched in the United States, Dannon hired the Opinion Research Corporation to survey more than 20,000 Americans for the Activia Most Irregular Cities Ranking. The survey defined irregularity as “that miserable experience of not going to the bathroom for two or more days.” Extrapolated survey results indicated that 26 million Americans had experienced irregularity at least once in the last three months.
As today, Whorton argues that the 19th- and 20th-century culture of constipation “conveys people’s ambivalence about modern life.” He argues that the forces of modernity that supposedly caused digestive distress (processed diets) also fueled its scientific and technological solutions. A blurred category between foods and pharmaceuticals, today’s functional food products reflect this same ambivalence. As Koteyko argues, functional foods “have an uncertain status between food and drugs and between ‘natural’ and ‘engineered’ foods.” Activia promotes a technological solution (a manufactured food pharmaceutical product) that is marketed as natural – as “a delicious probiotic yogurt that will help regulate your digestive system.”
In her feminist reading of Whorton’s text, Walton demonstrates the gendered perception and treatment of constipation in the 19th and 20th centuries. In particular, she discusses how the “Lane colectomy,” a surgical procedure that was performed by British surgeon Sir Arbuthnot Lane (and later found to be ineffective and harmful), targeted nearly exclusively female subjects. Lane argued that poor digestive health rendered a woman ugly, undesirable, and unmarriageable. However, as Whorton so poetically states, “surgery tamed the shrew” with Lane reporting that several of his female patients were married after receiving his operation. Walton argues, “As a result of the discourse of the colon throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries, we might, to follow Foucault’s lead, say that a new ‘species’ of individual was born: the ‘abdominal woman.’” Based upon this historical medical preoccupation, Walton argues that physicians, reformers, and the media continued to target women with campaigns promoting internal cleansing and regularity.
Gendered Messaging in Activia Marketing
The marketing of Activia yogurt reveals a modern adaptation of the historical abdominal woman, as advertisements literally reduce the female target audience to a perfectly flat abdomen. In at least the past five years of U.S. Activia advertisements, the focus of the ad was a woman’s toned stomach and the animated bacteria that progress in the form of a superimposed yellow arrow through her digestive system intact and ready to promote regularity, health, and vitality. These toned tummies are predominantly light skinned. As Vidali argues in her analysis of Activia advertisements, these flat bare bellies provide “gastrointestinal pornography,” eroticizing women’s bodies within the less sexually-charged context of health.
Advertisements from other countries are even more provocative. Vidali cites a UK advertisement that features a bare midriff, accompanied by a salmon-coloured waistband and a white sports bra. In addition, the model pictured places her hands “suggestively beneath her navel.” Vidali also cites a Brazilian Activia ad that portrays a model with an idealized body, “naked from the waist up, with windblown hair, an exposed breast, and closed eyes,” as she holds a yogurt and spoon. In a Canadian print advertisement, the image of a woman’s thin, flat, white stomach extends upward several inches higher than in American advertisements, exposing the lower curve of the woman’s petite and perky breasts. Even when advertisements do not nakedly expose women’s abdomens, women in most Activia commercials touch or gesture toward their stomachs when referring to or speaking about irregularity. In both a positive, slim, and regular context and in a negative, bloated, irregular one, a woman’s stomach remains the focus.
These advertisements present more than idealized and sexualized female bodies, however. Although Activia’s marketing pitch says nothing about weight loss, advertisements often align irregularity with bloating. The link between irregularity and bloating frames digestive problems as a physical sensation that creates the appearance of fatness, which is distressing to the women featured in Activia advertisements – and perhaps to the women viewing them as well. Although some women mention eating Activia in order to feel well, Activia advertisements give equal focus to looking slim. Jean Kilbourne, author of Killing Us Softly: Advertising's Image of Women, reinforces this point of view, saying,
I see [the stomachs featured in Activia advertisements] as a weight loss implication. It's meant to evoke the idea, 'This is the kind of tummy you can end up with.' The arrow is code for 'This will go right through you.' It's a dieting subtheme that plays on the whole idea of women being much more focused to do whatever it takes to make our bodies feel thin.
These slim female bodies speak to women overtly; so too do the female spokespersons. In the United States, Jamie Lee Curtis served as the main celebrity spokeswoman from 2008 to 2013, promoting Activia with gushing enthusiasm and positivity. A 2013 commercial also features healthy living expert and co-host of ABC’s The Chew, Daphne Oz, dressed in a bright pink blouse. While some U.S. commercials feature men, they never appear in starring roles. In Activia commercials in international markets as well, women are consistently the main faces of the campaign, whether celebrities, models, or “real” customers.
Other elements of Activia advertising include a gendered subtext in their approach. For example, many advertisements feature the Activia logo of two curved yellow lines, an impression of a woman’s waist and stomach. Some versions of Activia containers and cardboard packaging feature images of a firm, flat stomach with a yellow arrow superimposed on top. At the conclusion of Activia television commercials, a high and innocent female voice sings, “Ac-tiv-i-aaaah,” an easily recognizable and supremely feminine four-note jingle.
The 2013 U.S. version of the Activia website also features feminine colours, images, and phrases. Select headings appear in a playful, cursive script that is distinctly girly. The website homepage features pink-coloured buttons and heart-shaped icons. Navigation directions also appear on some pages encircled in pink hearts. In addition, the image that details the digestive benefits of Activia features a thin woman, wearing bold pink leggings while she stands in a yoga pose. Three green and yellow hearts mark spots along her body and digestive tract where Activia yields health benefits. Throughout the U.S. Activia website, only photos of women appear. All women are thin and most are light skinned.
Activia commercials also reinforce stereotypically feminine ways of being. For example, commercials create space for open discussions about irregularity and digestive health only within the scope of “girl talk” between friends or with Jamie Lee Curtis, who Activia commercials portray as a warm and trustworthy confidant. These discussions often occur in “feminine” settings, such as girls’ night out or shopping trips. For example, in the March 2012 commercial, “Dress Shop,” three black women discuss eating Activia yogurt while dress shopping, a feminine social activity. Starring “real women” rather than actresses, two of the friends in the commercial consume Activia regularly, while one has never tried it. The commercial reinforces research findings that women who experience digestive irregularity withdraw from social activities. For example, while holding up a gold-sequined dress, one woman who regularly consumes Activia says to the other who has not tried it, “If you’re not feeling like trying this on, that’s not normal.” She reinforces her own vitality saying, “Feeling regular to me was a new feeling. I came to find my ‘new normal’ and I love it.” In the same series, a commercial titled “Girls Night Out” features three “real” friends over the age of fifty discussing Activia while enjoying a girls night at an Italian restaurant, seated at a table covered with a red and white checkered table cloth. Within this campaign, women discuss digestive health openly, but only within stereotypically feminine settings.
A 2013 commercial for Activia Greek yogurt, one of the newest members of the product line, features spokeswoman Jamie Lee Curtis. This particular commercial personifies her yogurt choice as a romantic partner. Using a familiar trope and play on words, Jamie (and by extension consumers) seek not the man of their dreams, but “the Greek of your dreams.” In the commercial, Jamie says she is in a “committed relationship” with Activia, but that she has been having “an affair of sorts” with Greek yogurt because it is so thick, creamy, and high in protein. The commercial concludes Jamie’s love story metaphor as she says, “Now, I’m even happier since Activia Greek showed up. Because now I get to have my first love and my Greek passion together – what I call a happy marriage.”
As demonstrated by this reading of 2013 U.S. commercials, Activia markets probiotic yogurt to women in a reductionist fashion. Activia speaks to women directly using conventionally feminine colours, images, and phrases. Activia commercials engage women only within stereotypically feminine settings and structured moments of girl talk with Jamie Lee Curtis, as well as by using romantic relationship metaphors.
Activia Users, Functional Foods, and Health
If Activia’s marketing is so clearly gender-focused, then who are the women who purchase and consume this probiotic yogurt? Canadian industry reports reveal that the Activia target audience is women between the ages of 30 and 54 who juggle family and professional demands, are responsible for grocery shopping, and experience digestive problems, typically caused by stress or poor diet. Furthermore, market research found that women who experience digestive problems shy away from socializing, preferring to “be alone, dress comfortably, stay on the sofa and wait until the symptoms disappear.” This is likely the reason that Activia advertisements so prominently feature female social gatherings.
Furthermore, a Canadian Activia brand analysis described the product’s target market as those earning more than $50,000, more likely to have children, and possessing a post-graduate degree. Such income and education levels align with Activia’s more expensive purchase price. The authors also concluded that those who consume Activia are likely to be highly health conscious. This is relevant as a consumer marketing study found,
Highly health conscious consumers may be more willing to try functional foods (in the hopes that they gain the purported health benefit), even when it is not clear that the claim is fully valid, because such consumers are biased to interpret information in a way that they believe helps them manage and control their health.
As discussed previously, women, particularly those dealing with digestive issues, value control over their symptoms for both physical and socio-cultural reasons. Furthermore, these demographic details reveal that the women most likely to consume Activia are also middle to upper class, well educated, and health conscious. These characteristics make those who consume Activia more empowered than other women to eat in a particular way in order to bring about a desired result.
Notably, while there is a growing trend toward eating in a way that is more natural, organic, and environmentally responsible, there is dually burgeoning interest in consuming food as medicine. As nutritional epigenetics research and knowledge grow more sophisticated, precise, and definitive, a segment of consumers will be open to dietary solutions that favour science and technology, eating to promote or prevent genetic predispositions. In this way, functional foods, including Activia, serve as a window into futuristic ways of eating. Within this world, functional foods do not promote the prevention of digestive ills by more widespread lifestyle changes or a more intimate connection with and understanding of one’s own body. Rather, probiotic yogurt treats these discomforts, just as medicine treats other conditions.
Although Activia’s marketing opens the door in some ways for a dialogue regarding digestive health among women in the United States, it does so in a way that minimizes the sensory experience of digestion, aiming to render it invisible. Contrary to the principles of interoception, which view digestion as connected to and in communication with the world outside of our bodies, Activia simply aspires to eradicate discomfort and sell yogurt. Thus, the flat and fit exterior of the abdominals featured in Activia advertisements acts to obscure the inner workings of the digestive system and its relationship to other aspects of human health. While market research identifies stress and poor diet as the root causes of digestive issues, stress management and a healthy diet are not the prescribed treatments and preventative actions in a consumer society. Instead the purchase of a medicinal yogurt provides a suitable treatment that only takes fourteen days to reach effectiveness.
This analysis has demonstrated the historical and contemporary state of female digestion and the role that Activia probiotic yogurt plays within this narrative in the 21st century. While functional foods and probiotics are as of yet poorly defined in the United States, consumers (particularly women) are piling their shopping carts high with these iconic green cups of yogurt. As discussed, women suffer gastrointestinal issues more often than men, the symptoms of which have profound implications for a woman’s sense of control and self, as well as comfort and confidence in her body. Within this context, Activia promises a scientific but non-prescription solution to irregularity and all the social and cultural factors that accompany it. Currently, this solution is marketed using stereotypical feminine conventions, from the colour pink to dress shopping.
Notably, while advertisers directly communicate the health benefit of Activia as regulation of the digestive system, the product’s subtext promotes something different and far more ephemeral – vitality, an active life, and a better self. Just as 19th-century campaigns against constipation were equally concerned for spiritual, moral, and emotional well-being, 21st-century interest in functional and medicinal foods expresses a culture’s current concerns and hopes for the future. The marketing of Activia, functional foods, and most “healthy” foods for that matter engages in a discourse about who consumers are, who they desire to be, and the exercise of control in this process. Furthermore, as women navigate culturally constructed ideals for female bodies and behaviours, Activia both reinforces these ideals and markets itself as a technological and medicinal solution for digestive distress and bloated bellies. Activia promises that any and every woman can become the perfect abdomen portrayed in Activia advertisements by following a fourteen-day regimen of yogurt consumption.
Trailing yogurt competitors Chobani and Yoplait, Activia launched a new U.S. advertising campaign in January 2014 that, according to Jeffrey Rothman, vice president for marketing at Dannon, aims to make Activia “relevant to a broader audience” of “everyday people,” including more youthful consumers and men. No longer starring Jamie Lee Curtis, 2014 Activia promotions feature Laila Ali, Reba McEntire, and Dr. Travis Stork as celebrity endorsers. Although this new approach deviates from the advertisements and themes discussed in this article, it is worth noting that as of March 2014, both the U.S. and Canadian Activia websites feature a photo spread and video starring Columbian pop superstar Shakira. Through Shakira – and her long famous belly baring and sensual dancing – Activia’s “Dare to Feel Good” campaign may attract new clients of both genders. However, it also continues to align digestive health with images of idealized feminine beauty, focusing directly upon an eroticized toned tummy.
Emily Contois is an American Studies Ph.D. student at Brown University. She holds a Master of Liberal Arts in Gastronomy from Boston University, a Master of Public Health focused in Public Health Nutrition from the University of California, Berkeley, and a Bachelor of Arts in Letters from the University of Oklahoma. She blogs on food studies, nutrition, and public health at emilycontois.com.
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Emily Contois est doctorante en études américaines à l’Université Brown. Elle détient une maîtrise en arts (gastronomie) de l’Université de Boston; une maîtrise en santé publique (nutrition et santé publique) de Berkeley (University of California); et un baccalauréat en arts et lettres de l’Université de Oklahoma. Elle blogue à propos des études alimentaires, de la nutrition et de la santé publique (emilycontois.com).