Monday, 9 July 2012

The Super-Ultra-Mega-Gulp Has No Clothes

Props to Twitter for allowing me to witness interesting conversations. Andrew Coyne and Dan Gardner were debating the merits of New York's Mayor Bloomberg's proposed ban on large soda sizes in New York restaurants. Dan Gardner states the ban makes sense, Andrew Coyne, not so much. Put me in Team Gardner on this one.

Freedom lovers state that this ban is taking away choice from the consumer. To which I must ask how? The only limit is the size of the container you can purchase a drink in. Nothing stops a consumer from ordering fifteen 16 fl oz (473 ml for us Canucks) and guzzling them all as fast as they can.

In large part I find this "choice" argument somewhat superfluous to the topic at hand. The reason people go to fast food restaurants is to avoid having to make choices. Simplistic menus are there to encourage speed and convenience, fast food chains are the assembly line of the food world. We go there because we don't want to take time to make decisions, if we wanted leisurely choices we would go to a sit down restaurant and take our time reviewing the menu.

Also I find that what choice there is an illusion. The cup sizes on offer in a fast food restaurant have little bearing on the cup sizes we use in our own homes. When I host or am visiting someones home, and they offer me a drink, the glasses used are all within a few ounces of each other. The serving options available in an average home are all standardized, and we are used to them. When I try to choose a cup size in a restaurant and they show the sizes, it is often hard to relate the sizes on display to the amount I desire to drink. I wind up guessing (or accepting the default size that comes with the meal deal. Whatever that is.)

This effect has become much more pronounced as a parent, as these charts show, the sizes available for children exceed that what is offered to adults in other countries (notably Japan). As a parent it actually is an exercise in frustration to get a drink small enough that doesn't fill my son's stomachs to the point they can't eat any food. (And for the purposes of this discussion, I will avoid the topic of the size of the servings for kids, another gross violation of the human digestive system.)

In Canada the recent changes in the coffee sizes by Tim Hortons has caused its own confusion. At home when I brew my own coffee, I drink it in an average mug. Which size corresponds to that? I had to measure it by pouring a Tim Hortons order into one of my own mugs. It is the small. Did you know that? I didn't know that. There's no way to know that. The only size on the sign is the 24 oz extra large. If you are from an older generation that still drinks coffee from a traditional cup and saucer, which size is that? None of them. The Extra Small (the smallest size available) would overflow that cup. Even the size options of small, medium, large change from restaurant to restaurant. I can't make an informed choice because there are no norms on which to base them on. I can't ask for a 250 ml cup. No one knows what that is, least of all the staff.

Contrast this with your normal sit down restaurant. At an expensive restaurant a coffee after dinner is either in a traditional cup or in a mug. Even the greasy spoon diner with the $3.99 breakfast uses coffee cups or mugs. Sizes we are used to.

Fast food restaurants in particular are the exception to our social norm. Why is that? What is it that provokes them to enforce gluttony on us? I say it is about time someone puts the brakes on these corporate monoliths manipulating us into choices we wouldn't rationally make. When it comes down who to trust, I do not side with the company that has profit as its sole motivator.

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