In 1924, Oscar F. Mayer (who’d started a butcher shop in Chicago with his brother Gottfried) patented presliced, packed bacon. Soon, Mayer added the brand’s signature yellow band, which quickly became an instantly recognizable guarantee of quality. That was important. Each and every American put away around 120 pounds of meat (including bacon) every year. Concerns focused on product integrity. Cholesterol? Fat? Foreign words!
Those blissful days ended in 1984 when Time magazine devoted its March 26 issue’s cover story to a groundbreaking study by Dr. Basil Rifkind, one that scientifically linked consumption of fat with heart disease. Outspoken and confident, Rifkind did not mince words about his findings. “The majority of people don’t know that they are a time bomb,” he said, and ordered us all to cut the fat—or die.
Americans freaked, and the fat-free craze was thus born. Food manufacturers responded seemingly overnight, packing store shelves with dubious, substitute, pseudo-foods like Snackwells and Egg Beaters. Meanwhile, Oscar Mayer had little choice but to respond, too, which it did with product shown in this 1986 ad. Never mind that “lean bacon” was an oxymoron roughly on part with “military intelligence” and “Amtrak schedule,” don’t blame Oscar Mayer, said Steve Stallman, founder of Stallman Marketing, which specializes in the food industry. “Manufacturers believed what they were told by consumer research—which was that people wanted to eat healthier and buy products that were better for them.”
Of course, we all know how this story turned out. Later, much later, consumers would awaken to the fact that many low-fat foods (products that invariably boosted the sugar and sodium to compensate for the lost flavor) were just as bad for them as the sinful originals. Snackwells had just as many calories as fatty cookies did. Over the last generation, calorie intake and diabetes rates have soared, and heart disease has not abated one bit.
Which brings us back to Oscar Mayer bacon, whose product shown in this 2013 ad looks very little like the 1986 version and more like what consumers would have bought back in the 1920s: thick slabs of bacon, marbled with fat, no apologies. “These ads are an acknowledgment that focusing on ingredients doesn’t hold up in today’s market,” said Stallman, who adds that the real change in evidence here isn’t just the return of fat but the dawning of a degree of common sense. “People know bacon isn’t really healthy for them. So now the fat’s right there. Nobody’s trying to hide it.”
Least of all the brand of Oscar F. Mayer, who lived to be 95, died in his sleep and championed real bacon to the end.