Special K is marketing my neurosis

Special KSpecial K’s “What Will You Gain When You Lose?” marketing campaign (WWYG), which was launched during prime weight loss season in early 2012, diverts attention from the brand as a diet company by waxing existential with its female consumers. Instead of showing success stories of weight loss or promoting its two-Special-K-products-a-day-plus-dinner diet, the ads show women rapping about their issues with self-esteem and weight control. Then, instead of a number they might see on a scale or a measuring tape, the women come up with a quality or characteristic they want to embody. In answer to the question “What will you gain when you lose?”, women respond with “courage,” “sass,” and “peace.” At public weigh-in events, women step on a Special K “scale” and see an inspiring word such as “joy” or “confidence” instead of their weight.

The campaign aims to put a positive spin on the pervasive belief most women harbor: that once we have the body of our dreams, we will be happy, less stressed, and living the life of our dreams. Kellogg’s and Leo Burnett Chicago, the ad agency behind WWYG, won a North American Gold Effie, a top award in advertising, for the multimedia campaign, and in all respects, the two companies deserve recognition for their innovation. WWYG earned Special K over 400,000 fans on Facebook and brought sales up by 2.8%, all by shifting focus from concrete weight loss numbers to the deeper psychology of women’s desire to be thin – that our extra weight is symbolic of all that’s literally weighing us down and keeping us from being our best selves. Special K is no longer selling weight loss but soul realization.

Just as Dove is doing with their “Real Beauty” campaigns, Special K’s new marketing strategy is in emphasizing brand identity moreso than product. Their goal is to gain Special K allies by appearing to level with female consumers, by saying, hey, it’s hard to be a woman, and we’re with you, and next time you’re at the supermarket maybe you should pick up a Special K snack bar – it only has 110 calories. Why don’t you grab a bar of Dove soap too, because their slogan is “you are more beautiful than you think.”

This kind of advertising feels more sinister than straightforward product pushing. Dove and Special K are mining the core of our body image issues and sculpting them into super-successful marketing campaigns, and all the while they’re banking on women forever wanting to lost weight or have better, softer skin. It’s duplicitous, and it doesn’t help women deal with their body image issues in the slightest.

Special K’s newest campaign is “You’re So Much More Than a Number,” but they’re still asking, “What will you gain when you lose?” No matter their marketing, Special K makes money because women are unhappy with their bodies – and sales are skyrocketing because their advertising is saturated with notions of positive body image. It’s almost an effort of reverse psychology: a woman in the grocery store browses the cereal aisle, she remembers Special K’s assertion that she is more than a number, she thinks “Yes, I am more than a number, and I will continue my weight loss program with Special K,” she feels good about the purchase and carries on with her shopping.