The product was called “Protone” which was manufactured in Detroit, MI, and cost $1.00. It was offered for sale by “all druggists” everywhere. Or, you could mail in the coupon offered in the ad and get the 50-cent package of Protone which invited you to “gain 30 pounds in 30 days” with this marvelous flesh building product. The ad went on to describe how thin people look pale, tired and anemic and promised that Protone would help fill out the hollow places, plump up the flesh and take away that “hungry, pleading expression” from the eyes. Now, as a veteran dieter and former weight loss counselor I’ve seen that hungry, pleading expression in the eyes of my clients, even in my own eyes, when trying to maintain weight loss, but never have I seen that look in the eyes of the naturally thin!
I’m sorry; I’m having a hard time with laughing out loud as I write this. Once upon a time, around a hundred years ago, Protone, the flesh builder, promised to deliver women from thinness: “For women who never appear stylish in anything because of thinness, Protone is a revelation.” The advertisement addresses men as well, showing a skinny guy next to a man who is much more robustly built, indicating that thin people suffer a great deal of embarrassment and ridicule, while the “plump, well-formed man or woman is a magnet….(it) puts color in your cheeks, a happy twinkle in your eye…” And, they say, it’s scientific too! Thank goodness for that!
Is this where tragedy meets comedy with our current epidemic of obesity? At the very least, it is an exquisite twist of irony, one that I find deliciously vindicating. Just a mere century ago I had a fashionably desirable body type, adept at maintaining plumpness and roundness, without even having to take a product like Protone! Actually, regular stops at the Dairy Queen can accomplish the same thing these days, plus provide a thrilling “taste encounter” as well!
All laughter and irony aside, however, what does looking back at an old advertisement such as this say about us? Many things, I am sure, but for starters—it reinforces the fact that advertising works, especially if it creates a sense of dissatisfaction with one’s appearance and makes the promise to change that. The old Protone ad reminds us that not so long ago, being skinny meant you were not getting enough to eat, whereas, corpulence implied wealth—you could afford to eat. Biologically speaking, the ad reminds us that the capacity to store fat provided a very real defense against starving to death during periodic famines. It also demonstrates how excess can present as many problems as scarcity. And finally, it underscores for me the truth behind the premise so simply stated by philosopher Albert Camus: “Life is the theater of the absurd.”