Deceptively Delicious

If a diet isn’t presented as a diet, is it still a diet?                   

That’s the annoying conundrum repeatedly posed by The 9-Inch Diet, the long-awaited book by Crispin Porter + Bogusky co-chairman/wunderkind Alex Bogusky (with a little help from Chuck Porter). “This isn’t a diet book,” the back page barks in huge type. “This is a book about plates. And the twisted conspiracy that is making our country fat.”

The argument about whether the word diet should be in quotes on the book’s cover gets disingenuous (if it’s not a diet, why is the word there at all?). But the line about plates is hilarious. The book is about the shifting of plates — dinner ones rather than tectonic ones — a serious subject, considering that as Americans’ plate size has grown, so have our waistlines.

Buff and chiseled, Bogusky is often photographed in tight T-shirts and jeans, and has not himself ever porked out. Rather, he tells us, this all started when he bought a lake house with its original 1940s kitchen intact. His dishes wouldn’t fit in the cabinets — today’s plates are, on average, two to three inches wider than those from 60 years ago.

Bogusky is not the first to suggest that whittling back plate size will whittle back the fat, but he’s the first to present it in such an entertainingly graphic format. The text of the book is serviceable, but the design of the big softcover is fresh and fun — from the matzoh-size pages, which accommodate an actual-size photo of a 9-inch plate on the cover, to the diagrams, charts and old-fashioned ruler, bound in so readers can detach it from the back page.

This is how you know the guy is in advertising, not publishing: The contributors’ page includes four art directors, four illustrators, three photographers, three retouchers and two photostylists. It shows. The book is all about explaining tricks in visual perception, and Bogusky certainly made use of his own visual cortex to make a book that’s light on copy seem packed with stuff.

He doesn’t claim that the central thesis, about eating from smaller plates to lose weight, is original. The idea has been written about and studied a lot, and Bogusky does credit Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, as the guy who coined the phrase “portion distortion.”

But Bogusky does pick up the mantle of indignance. “Over the past 30 years, America has been suffering from a severe case of gigantism,” he writes. “Cars have turned into station wagons, which have turned into vans, which have turned into two-ton SUVs. … Family homes have turned into 20-room McMansions. And the food merchants have come up with a phrase that sums up the phenomenon, ‘supersize.'”

Um, the food merchants? Who would they be?

Ever since this project was announced, ad-industry people have suspected some sort of trick, since it takes amazing audacity (and an ability to sidestep obvious awkwardness) for a guy whose agency famously pushes the gigantism of Burger King food to write a diet book.

Bogusky treats this inconvenience with, at best, selective disclosure. He mentions up front that “I have worked on campaigns for dozens of clients,” and includes Burger King at the end of a long list. “Yes, Burger King,” he writes. “Fast food. I still love it and eat it. This ‘diet’ will work with any food because it’s not about what. It’s about how much.”

That’s the last we hear about BK, though Bogusky does talk about other clients later on. There’s a funny story about Ikea when it first came to the U.S. and had trouble “keeping one particular vase stocked. Some people were buying four, six, even eight at a time.” Turns out that we gigantors, raised on Big Gulps and movie-theater Cokes, thought that a vase was a normal-size glass to drink soda.

What is unfair is that the book illustrates examples of fast-food supersizing mostly with photos from the McDonald’s menu. And those pictograms are what will get picked up in the press (as already happened in People magazine), not the couple of lines he devotes to noting that Ray Kroc was actually against supersizing.

There’s no debating that the tip about plate size could reform eating habits and help people to lose weight. But what the book doesn’t consider is the changing sociology of America, where both mom and dad are working longer hours, and no one is home cooking anymore. Chances are, if you cook your own food, you’ll lose weight regardless of plate size.

The other thing Bogusky doesn’t consider is that there are no plates at fast-food places — only paper wrappers, which in the case of BK were brilliantly designed by Crispin. Even a Whopper with double cheese and double bacon (the way one spot suggested you personalize it) could fit on a 9-inch plate.

By the way, the 9-inch thing is a conscious double entendre. Chapter six, titled “Size Matters,” opens with a full-page photo of a young, cut, nude, tattooed dude holding the a plate over his privates.

More of a product than a book, The 9-Inch Diet contains all the elements of any good piece of Crispin advertising. It’s provocative, graphic and counterintuitive. The medium is the message here, whether it’s about a diet or not.