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Deceptively Delicious

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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.

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