Supersize Me' and 'FatHead': Truth or Propaganda?

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The rising level of obesity in the United States of America over the past decade has led to an increase in both health and wellness promotions, and media attention. This has, of course, also caused elevated the level of controversy surrounding this issue, giving way to considerable amounts of articles, images and documentaries. Two exceptional models of such media attention, are ‘Supersize Me’ from Morgan Spurlock, and it’s refuting documentary ‘Fat Head’ directed by Tom Naughton. Both of the filmmakers employ very similar tactics such as; egos, logos, pathos, a range of logical fallacies and various film techniques, all in order to aid in the persuasion of the audience, and to prove that each of their own respective views are correct.

Spurlocks main aim in the creation of ‘Supersize Me’, was to investigate fast food companies, and the effects of certain fast food chains products, particularly McDonalds, on the health of society, additionally exploring the growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes in the United States. Another reason for Spurlock’s investigation was the increasing spread of obesity throughout U.S. society, declared an ‘epidemic’, and the corresponding lawsuit brought against McDonald’s on behalf of two overweight girls, who allegedly became obese as a result of eating McDonald’s food (Pelman v. McDonald’s Corp., 237 F. Supp. 2d 512). To start his experiment, Spurlock decided to eat only McDonald’s food for all three daily meals, stipulating everything on the menu must be eaten at least once, and when asked to supersize his meal he must do so. In addition to this, Spurlock can only take 5,000 steps a day, to replicate the amount of exercise that most average Americans get on a daily basis. The experiment was conducted for 30 days, during which Spurlock only ate from McDonald’s, whilst observing the impact of fast food on his physical and emotional well-being. The more he ate in McDonald’s, the more side-effects he experienced including; depression, fatigue, sexual problems, headaches, and chest pains. The camera captures all emotional and physical changes that Spurlock experiences. He gains help from three doctors; a gastroenterologist, a cardiologist, and a general practitioner, who indicate the changes in his physical and psychological state. The principal idea to which Spurlock constantly returns throughout his documentary is that McDonald’s fast food increases obesity in the United States.

As a documentary, ‘Fat Head’ focuses on the science and politics behind the nutrition recommendations given by the U.S. government, largely based on the lipid hypothesis, which is a theory of nutrition started in the early 1950s in the United States by Ancel Keys and promoted in much of the Western world, which Naughton claims has errors in all three of its main propositions. The film claims that the lipid hypothesis has no basis in scientific fact. According to the film there has never been scientific study that has linked a high fat diet to increased rates of heart disease. ‘Fat Head’ seeks to refute both the documentary ‘Super Size Me’ and the lipid hypothesis. During the film, Naughton goes on an all-fast-food diet, more or less mirroring Spurlock, mainly eating food from McDonald’s. For his daily dietary intake, he aims to keep his calories to around 2,000 and his carbohydrates to around 100 grams per day, but he does not restrict fat at all. He ends up consuming about 100 grams of fat per day, of which about 50 grams are saturated. He also walks six nights a week, instead of his usual three. After a month eating that way, he loses 12 pounds and his total cholesterol goes down.

The negative representation of Spurlock is revealed in many instances in Fat Head. According to Naughton, it’s impossible that Spurlock could have been consuming 5,000 calories a day with the rules he set in place. An example Naughton uses is that a large big mac meal, which is the fattiest item on the menu, is roughly 1,450 calories. Therefore, Naughton implies to the audience that Spurlock could have exaggerated his results, and experiments need to be done multiple times in order to conclude results. Spurlock’s results could not be replicated. This refutation of Spurlock’s supposed facts hugely discredits him as a trustworthy source, which will cause the audiences faith in Spurlock as a director to waiver. Another instance in ‘Fat Head’ that effectively portrays Spurlock negatively is through Naughton’s body language, when criticising ‘Super Size Me’. Much of the time, Naughton has his hands on his hips with his eyebrows arched upwards, an expression that connotes anger. Viewers perceive through Naughton’s aggression that the information addresses in ‘Super Size Me’ is mendacious. Moreover, the use of the camera angles at the mid eye level shot enables viewers to feel as though they are interacting with ‘the real Tom Naughton’. This sense of closeness makes his intended message more convincing.

Naughton utilises various cinematic techniques, in order to aid in the persuasiveness of his argument. In one particular scene, at the 16 minute mark where Naughton is questioning Spurlock’s calorie calculations, red background is used. This is an effective directive choice, as it acts upon the audiences subconscious, causing them to construct Spurlock as sinful, dishonest person. While Naughton explains how Spurlock’s calculations could not in fact be as calorie dense as he claims, the lyric ‘Something here doesn’t seem to add up’ is played in the background. This song works together perfectly with Naughton’s commentary of Spurlock’s errors, as it further emphasises the biased argument, and misfactual information. This combination of visual and auditory cinematic techniques conveys the shocking reality of ‘Super Size Me’ to the audience, and at the same time, creates a negative mood. These small factors all add up, in order to dispute the audience’s ability to trust Spurlock, making ‘Fat Head’ a clever, and effective refutation.

Throughout the film, Spurlock talks with various healthcare professionals and experts, such as John Banzhaf- a law professor at George Washington University, and Kelly Brownell- a PHD professor from Yale specialising in Food and Nutrition. These experts provide comments and opinions that support Spurlock’s claims. Banzhaf is a particularly credible source, as he has handled lawsuits similar to that of the obese girls who inspired Spurlock’s documentary in the first place. He’s a professional, and so the general public will respect and trust his opinions and comments. Spurlock also gains help from three doctors; a gastroenterologist, a cardiologist, and a general practitioner, who all follow and check up on his health and wellness over the study. On day 21, Spurlock wakes with chest pain and shortness of breath, and so goes for a check in with the doctors, who advise a total stop of this diet. The gastroenterologist states that Spurlock is essentially “kicking his liver while its down” and his health is in serious jeopardy.

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Naughton uses expert testimony, much like Spurlock, to aid in his claims. During the film several doctors and dietitians were interviewed and they all stated that according to the latest research on the heart, it’s inflammation and not a diet high in saturated fat that causes heart disease and heart attacks.

The use of expert testimony on both sides is effective for obvious reasons; as an audience, we are more inclined to be trusting in qualified individuals, whose job is to know and understand more than the average person, and who also should not have influential bias toward a specific side of an argument. It’s based on the appealing to authority fallacy, whereby individuals attempt to justify their argument by citing a highly admired, well known or credential figure who supports their point. This causes a regular person to be inclined to have trust in what the authority figure’ is claiming, as they’re well qualified. However, I believe the use of this tactic in ‘Fathead’ can also be seen as a weakness, due to the fact Spurlock also used professionals, who claim totally the opposite. As a viewer, I would feel more inclined to trust in Spurlock, as some of Naughtons claims are fairly outrageous, such as the point that saturated fat has no scientific basis for causing heart disease, and so go against all that a general audience would understand about health and nutrition.

The rhetorical device of logos is defined as the appeal to logic. These appeals can be made in the form of statistics, numbers, and phrases. In the documentary Supersize Me, logos is presented to the audience through the medical assistance, testing, and analysis from several doctors. Spurlock frequently goes to these doctors over the month of the McDonald’s diet to test his weight, blood sugar, fat, cholesterol, and liver function. The results from the 30-day binge that Spurlock went on showed a profound effect on his body. Testing concluded that within just 30 days Spurlock gained 24 and a half pounds, a 13% body mass increase, cholesterol that skyrocketed, as well as very noticeable changes in mood. Logos is key in this documentary, in order to persuade the audience by giving factual, scientific details. Through logos, the results can be seen in numbers and thus can be put down in the form of data and statistics. Spurlock’s weight gain, cholesterol levels, body mass increase, and many other nutritional factors are all able to provide results that are clearly the outcome of the 30-day consumption of McDonald’s. These results are used to further persuade the audience of the dangers of the fast food industry and its products on people’s health. Spurlock uses factual evidence, such as: ‘sixty percent of all Americans are either overweight or obese’ and ‘In the last 20-25 years there has almost been a doubling in obese children and adolescents.’ These examples help both in supporting Spurlock’s claim and convincing the audience, as they add context and credibility, which makes his argument appear to be more factually sound to the audience.

Ethos is the usage of the author’s own credibility and character to effectively convey his or her message. There are two types of ethos: extrinsic ethos, which is ‘credibility that the author originally has’, and intrinsic ethos, which is ‘credibility the author develops in the argument.’ Spurlock applies both forms of ethos in his assertion. He graduated from a New York University, with a degree of Bachelor of Fine Arts in film, and was a playwright before he filmed this documentary. This background does give Spurlock extrinsic ethos to effectively convey his message, as he has experience in the field of film making. However, Spurlock’s credibility as a director is greatly tarnished from the lack of acknowledgement to alternative views because his action portrays him as a myopic individual who might not have a complete understanding of this complex issue. Building a bridge to audiences, Spurlock is able to reclaim some of his credibility, as all of his reasons for his claim are related to negative impacts on health and wellbeing of an individual. Spurlock’s targeted audience, the general public, shares the same value, belief, and principle about their own health with him. So, he has effective warrant that is able to increase the soundness of his argument and the ethos as a director. Spurlock overall has a lot of weaknesses in extrinsic and intrinsic ethos that overshadow the positive aspects of the documentary. Because Spurlock fails to appear as a credible and reliable director, his message becomes lost in the translation for the viewers, which could negatively impact his ability to persuade them. It’s also notable that the ad-hominem fallacy, whereby genuine discussion is avoided and irrelevant things are attacked in an argument, is a recurrent theme throughout ‘Supersize Me. Spurlock concludes all fast food restaurants are causing these terrible health implications, yet he only ever directly attacks McDonald’s. The effects on a person’s health by eating only McDonald’s food do not provide enough evidence about other fast food corporations. This weakens Spurlock’s persuasive capacity, thus causing the effectiveness of his argument to dwindle.

‘Fathead’ also employs the use of ethos, by interviewing many doctors and scientists, all of whom are experts in the field of health and wellness. Color graphs, obesity statistics, and information on the experiment were also used quite often in the film. This factual evidence helps the audience believe in what Naughton is talking about and establishing his credibility. The refutation of Spurlock’s criticism of McDonald’s is also shown in the scene where Naughton requests for Spurlock’s food log. In this segment, where there is on screen text showing the number of declined calls, the audience is led to believe that Naughton has been refused repetitively by the representatives of ‘Super Size Me’. From this, it is implied to viewers that Spurlock is a liar, as he’s unwilling to provide Naughton with his food log. While Spurlock is mentioned, he is not given the opportunity to put forward his point of view. Nowhere in this scene do viewers hear Spurlock’s refusal, or the actual conversation between the agents of ‘Supersize Me’ and Naughton. It is clear from this scene that ‘Fat Head’ is one sided. This could act as a disadvantage in persuasion for Naughtons audience, and they could infer a bias, making them less likely to have trust in the film.

Spurlock and Naughton take their audiences with them on their journeys in their documentaries. This helps in connecting with their audiences by letting them see the whole process start to end. Spurlock employs pathos to appeal to the audience’s emotions. One example in ‘Supersize Me’ is when Spurlock was vomiting right after eating ‘Supersized’ fries and drinking Coca-Cola right outside his car. Furthermore, when Spurlock found a black hair in his fruit parfait, and continued to eat it, disgusting for viewers to see, also playing highly on their pathos. Spurlock inserted a video clip of someone who is receiving bypass surgery to combat obesity and its related illnesses. He utilizes this imagery to convey the sense of emotional and physical anguish that an obese individual has to go through to stay alive. In addition to this, About 28 days into the experiment, Spurlock was told that his liver was failing, so he called his mom to tell her that his liver is being destroyed by the McDonald’s food. His mom’s voice on the phone sounded worried and devastated. This plays with the audience’s pathos causing the viewer to feel empathy towards him, while also causing them to think about how their consumption of fast food could have the same detrimental effects upon their own bodies.

To conclude, both Spurlock and Naughton excel in the art of persuasion, for each of their respective standpoints on the matter of the consumption of fast food. The way both directors employ first person experience, using facts and figures from experts, aids in the strength of ethos, logos and pathos, as the audience is taken through each respective journey first hand. Spurlock’s argument is extremely effective. He shows a basic and clear understanding of what fast food will do to a person’s body and proves it right in front of the audience’s eyes by conducting an experiment that, as he states, put his life at risk. He provides straightforward facts and resources that help support his argument, then ending the film leaving the audience wondering if they will ever want to see a fast food restaurant again. Spurlock also collects outside data by consulting professionals including doctors, nutritionists, and professors on the topic of fast food. He breaks the film into different chapters, at the start of every new chapter there is a disturbing photo of the face of McDonald’s, Ronald McDonald. Spurlock does this to make the audience feel disgust when thinking of McDonald’s. The audience is able to witness everything in both documentaires, making the viewer feel like what they are being shown can’t be disputed. Developing a methodology through research and interviews with different levels of authoritative figures, Spurlock and Naughton were able to improve their credibility throughout the movie. Good use of visual representation, narration, and incorporating personal stories to appeal to the emotions of the audience and connect with them personally. Spurlock used good use of appeal to authority by talking to experts and managed to distract the audience from identifying his use of emotionally loaded terms and the ad-hominem fallacy in order to persuade his audience into agreeing with him that fast food has prominently negative effects on one’s body physically and emotionally. Overall, Spurlock made a sound claim, and backed it up well, effectively persuading the audience of his beliefs and views, with facts, figures, emotion and comedy, and Naughton was able to effectively refute Spurlock’s claims using many of the same methods.

Works Cited

  1. Naughton, T., Smiley, S., Monahan, T., Vine Street Pictures., Middle Road Pictures (Firm), Ostrow and Company., & Morningstar Entertainment Inc. (2008). Fat Head. Burbank, CA: Distributed by Morningstar Entertainment.
  2. Spurlock, M. (2016). Super Size Me. [online] YouTube. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAnCOHCVjyU [Accessed 29 Mar. 2016].
  3. Newman, T. (n.d.). Obesity: Facts and statistics. Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/319902.php
    (2018, December 27). Fat Head. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:18, April 19, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Fat_Head&oldid=875583008 (2019, April 11). Super Size Me. In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 17:19, April 19, 2019, from https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Super_Size_Me&oldid=891925514
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Supersize Me’ and ‘FatHead’: Truth or Propaganda? [Internet] WritingBros. 2020 Nov 26 [cited 2021 Jul 24]. Available from: https://writingbros.com/essay-examples/supersize-me-and-fathead-truth-or-propaganda/
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