The Marketing Power of the Media: The Magic of Words

FROM THE LECTURE SERIES: THE SKEPTIC'S GUIDE TO HEALTH, MEDICINE, AND THE MEDIA

By Roy Benaroch, M.D., Emory University

The influence of words on our unconscious to accept or reject an idea is undeniable. A specific word can transform our view and feelings toward the concept. One of these words is ‘superfood’, which gained widespread attention through media coverage. How did a single word help skyrocket the sales of a fruit?

Selection of antioxidant food. Healthy superfood, detoxification with fruits and various berries. Fresh nourishment on table.
Superfoods are advertised as having curative powers for various illnesses. (Image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock)

The First Appearance of ‘Superfood’

The first time the word ‘superfood’ was widely used was in the 1920s, when the United Fruit Company launched a campaign to sell bananas. ‘Superfood’ is not a medical word, and it is not used in medical contexts by scientists. But the term became popular around 1990 when lists of ‘superfoods’ appeared in several books and articles. Seaweed, blueberries, turmeric, chickpeas, ginger, and many others have been labeled as superfoods, leading to a dramatic, sometimes temporary, increase in their sales.

One specific superfood that experienced this dramatic, short-lived fame created primarily by the media is acai, pronounced ‘ah-sah-ee’. For thousands of years, it has been a favorite food in the area surrounding the Amazon River. It is a fruit with a single pit surrounded by edible flesh, but in the US, it is often called a berry. Around 2000, the fruit started to become known outside of South America when two brothers and a friend started exporting it to the US.

Acai Rise to Fame

It gained media attention as a cure for many illnesses like ADD, autism, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, erectile dysfunction, and obesity. It experienced a meteoric rise and a proportionate fall through media coverage. In the late 2000s, many new stories covered it as one of the fastest-growing foods in history. An LA Times article introduced it as a “global wonder-berry”.

Açaí palm with fruit
Acai is a favorite food of people around the Amazon River. (Image: CostaPPPR/CC BY-SA 3.0/Public domain)

But other news outlets were not that enthusiastic and started questioning the hype. An ABC article revealed that the total sales of acai in the US had increased from half-a-million dollars to $13.5 million in two years. This spike in sales was partly due to the discussions on TV shows like The Oprah Winfrey Show.

The hype led significant multinational food and cosmetic companies such as Coca-Cola and Procter and Gamble to be drawn to the fruit and make products with acai in them.

The Oprah Winfrey Show’s celebrity doctors introduced the fruit as being rich in antioxidants and vitamins. But most customers interpreted this as an indication that acai was a superfood with many proven health benefits, especially being useful in weight loss.

But the ABC News story remained skeptical and stated that there was no evidence to support acai’s effectiveness in weight loss, quoting Dr. Oz, who said he would be surprised to see if acai could help with weight loss by itself.

Learn more about the media’s role in improving health.

The Media Hype Diminishes

In 2009, a New York Times story questioned the claims made about the health benefits of acai. The story pointed out that there was no evidence to back up acai’s health claims like removing wrinkles or detoxing the body or for weight loss.

An açaí harvest
Acai berries were narketed as a superfood with curative effects. (Image: Guapi-Tecnologies/CC BY-SA 4.0/Public domain)

Other stories took the case further and pointed to exaggerated claims about acai, as well as the shady sales practices, like charging credit cards for acai shipments that couldn’t be canceled. A Fox News Health story in 2011 was published with the title “The Truth About Acai Berries.” It called acai a “bloodied and wounded survivor of American Marketing gone wild.” At the same time, there were questionable sales figures for acai products. For example, a diluted acai drink had $2 billion in sales a year.

Still, there were many media attempts to keep sales going. In 2017, long after acai had been debunked as a magic fruit, the Huffington Post ran a story titled, “Everything you need to know about acai bowls, the World’s Best Healthy Breakfast,” and claimed that “when it comes to acai bowls—which feature the real superfood from Brazil—the buzz is 100% real.”

Learn more about the media and weight loss.

Other Supposed Superfoods

There are many other instances of fruits and foods raved about as superfoods by media and marketing resources. For example, a story from The New York Post titled “The Eight Surprising Superfoods That Will Make You Live Longer,” introduced fruits like horned melon, pitaya, star fruit, sacha inchi seeds, maca, and natto. The article even admits the media hype about superfoods and says, “Move over, quinoa, and make room for freekeh.”

What most of these superfoods have in common is that they are exotic fruits or foods never heard of before. Although they are rich in protein and vitamins, they are not magical or super in any way, or effective in curing diseases. The UK’s The Telegraph rounded up the issue in a perfect way in their 2014 article, “The Myth of the Superfood”:

The trouble is, no one knows what a superfood is, and there’s no good evidence that any of the things we call superfoods are any better for us than the normal fruit and veg we should be eating as part of a balanced diet anyway.

This is a transcript from the video series The Skeptic’s Guide to Health, Medicine, and the Media. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Common Questions about the Marketing Power of the Media Through the Magic of Words

Q: Is acai a superfood?

Although the fruit is rich in vitamins and antioxidants, there is no scientific evidence indicating it is a superfood. It does not help people lose weight either.

Q: What are superfoods?

Superfoods are certain foods and fruits claimed to have magical powers in curing certain illnesses. Many foods have been introduced as superfoods like seaweed, blueberries, turmeric, chickpeas, ginger, and many others.

Q: What is acai?

Acai is a favorite food in the area surrounding the Amazon River. It is a fruit and has a single pit surrounded by edible flesh, but in the US, it is often called a berry.

Q: Is acai good for you?

Although it was claimed that acai was the cure to many illnesses, including ADD, autism, arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease, erectile dysfunction, and obesity, there is no medical evidence to prove those claims. Nevertheless, it is high in antioxidants and vitamins.

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