The Ball Drops, Diet Book Sales Soar: What Makes a Fad or a Flop?

by Jean Alves

Another new year, another fad diet.  In a society struggling with rising obesity rates and yearning for that one, sure-fire silver bullet, the annual influx of absurdly unsustainable diet crazes has become something of a tradition. There have been plenty massively popular but less-than-credible diet plans that in the past that could give us clues about the future: “The Cave Man Diet,” “The Grapefruit Diet,” “The Cabbage Soup Diet.”  What will 2010’s answer be to resolute but misguided resolution-makers?

This was just the question that led Caroline Gottesman, a second-year Nutrition Communication student, to design her own directed study on the matter.

Nearing the end of her semester-long research project, Gottesman has compiled a list of recent hits and misses from the fad diet scene and has analyzed their content from the theoretical perspective of Diffusion of Innovation.  First conceptualized by French sociologist Gabriel Tarde at the end of the nineteenth century, the Diffusion of Innovation model explains why people do or do not adopt a new health behavior, like a new diet regimen.  After all, popularity is not based on merit alone, and history provides countless examples of how perfectly good ideas may go utterly ignored.

Gottesman says the process of examining the litany of diet plans out there has been illuminating, albeit a bit alarming.  “Just knowing how much information there is is amazing – there’s no filter.  I’ve never really thought about it, but there’s a lot out there.”

Choosing successes from the New York Times Best Sellers list and flops from the bottom-feeder books according to Amazon.com’s rankings, she compared how each book measured against the five rules of Diffusion of Innovation – relative advantage, compatibility, simplicity, trialability, and observability.

The case of the Morning Banana Diet, is a good way to show these theoretical concepts in action.

Just about one year ago, calorie-counting Japanese approached the brink of hysteria over the “Morning Banana Diet.”  According to its creators Hitoshi Wanatabe, who studied preventive medicine in Tokyo, and his pharmacist wife Sumiko Watanabe, a Japanese pharmacist, weight loss is guaranteed by following the plan’s few simple principles.

First, start each morning with one fresh, raw banana.  Other fruit can be substituted.  If you are still hungry 15-30 minutes after your initial banana/fruit-of-choice, you may eat other food.

Next, eat lunch and dinner as you normally would.  Only eat until you are satisfied, not uncomfortably full.  Dinner must be eaten by 8 p.m. and you mustn’t eat dessert, but there are no other explicit limits on the types of foods permitted at other meals.  However, you must also drink only tepid water, drunk in small sips and not used to wash down food.

Finally, more common sense advice: If desired, an afternoon snack is allowed – a sweet snack of chocolate or cookies is permissible, but donuts, ice cream, and potato chips are not recommended.  Chew all food slowly and eat each meal mindfully.  Go to bed early and exercise only if you feel compelled to do so.  And ta-da: pounds shed and inches lost.

In what seemed an inexplicable phenomenon, this man and his banana plan recruited dietary converts faster than you can say potassium.  The demand for bananas escalated to the point that supermarkets and convenience stores were completely selling out of stock.  Banana sales increased by 70 to 80%, and, 730,000 copies of the book had been sold.  What makes such a seemingly simple and debatably inane diet book flourish while others miserably flop?

According to the theory of Diffusion of Innovation there is a reason.  It purports that in order for an innovation, like the latest diet book, to be readily picked up by the masses it must follow five basic rules.

  1. The diet plan must be relatively advantageous.  That is, it must be better (or appear better) than what was out there before.  (Why watch what I eat at every meal when I can just have a banana in the morning and achieve the same results?)
  2. The diet must be compatible with its target audience.  It should appeal to their needs, preferences, values, and so on.  (Bananas are easy to find, relatively cheap, and far more palatable than a lot of other cardboard-esque diet food.)
  3. The diet must also be relatively simple – easy to understand and easy to use.  (Have a banana for breakfast.  ‘Nuff said.)
  4. The diet must have “trialability”.  Can the meal plan be tested before making a decision to officially adopt it?  (Here, try a banana.)  If a diet or exercise plan requires buying new equipment or making major changes to one’s schedule or lifestyle, for example, it’s harder to try it out before making any major investments of time or money.
  5. The results of the diet must be observable.  If there are no compelling before-and-after stories, it’s easy for a new diet book to get lost in noise.  This where the Morning Banana Diet really hit the mark.

Mr. Wanatabe himself lost 37 pounds on the plan.  He also posted the diet on Mixi, Japan’s largest social networking site.  Through this medium, people could connect to fellow dieters, see their photos, and read their success stories.  However, the diet transformed from online fad to pop-culture sensation after popular Japanese opera singer, Kumiko Mori, announced on television that she had lost 15 pounds on the diet.

It may be that getting a lot of people to try your diet may not be as effective as getting the right people to try it.  In Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point, he refers to this critical concept as “The Law of the Few.”  He contends that a few key types of must champion an idea or a product before it reaches the tipping point of becoming accepted and adopted en masse.

Although her results yielded no significant findings due to her small sample size, Caroline’s study is a first step in an area ripe for future research.  “If we know how food choices are presented and how marketing plays a role (in the success of a diet),” says Gottesman, “we might be able to know how to present dietary information in a way that’s most appealing but also based on sound science.”

In the meantime, the role of the health professional may just be to remain cognizant of the powerful and potentially dangerous information that’s constantly being thrown into the media spotlight.  Remind clients or patients to be wary of magic pills, celebrity endorsements, and other marketing ploys.  And use the 5 principles of diffusion to your advantage when construction your own health messages.

Now if we could just replace the faceless MyPyramid stick-figure with Operah…

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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