Presidential Fitness and Lifestyle Marketing

I have a theory about obesity. Why is it on the rise? Is it because our marketing has improved? Or is it because we have not taken marketing seriously enough?

Marketing is a debate. It is an argument made by an organization in favor of a product or service. People are influenced by marketing. That is undeniable. The rise in obesity has coincided with the popularity of social media. Are people so distracted and seduced by what they are seeing on their phones, that they are unable to resist temptation? 

How have people been convinced that the pleasure they get from eating junk food is better than the pleasure they would feel from being physically fit? If we believe that marketing works then why don’t we market back harder? At least that would be a plan of action. Why don’t we offer products that are better, that have nutritional value, and market the absolute hell out of them? 

It’s time for the health-conscious industry to start breaking out the big guns. We can wait till people start demanding better options, or we can create them and provide tremendous value to a public with a lot of problems. Obesity is an entirely preventable condition, and it will only take a decision to aggressively market a healthy relationship to food and body size. 

One of the problems we have had so far is that some of the people who work in the fitness industry in one way or another have been effective at marketing to people who are already actively trying to get fit, but they have been heavy handed and flat footed when it comes to recruiting people to join their movement. Arnold Schwarzenegger made presidential fitness cool in the early 90s for a minute, but it was ultimately a flop.

Fitness has been on the agenda for the U.S. since the 1950s. According to the official U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ website, the council “began in 1956, when President Eisenhower established the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. After more than 6 decades, we are now the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness & Nutrition, and we strive to engage, educate, and empower all Americans to adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity and good nutrition.”

One of the key words that keeps coming up in my research of this topic is lifestyle. As someone who does content marketing, lifestyle photography is a big part of what I think about and practice. Lifestyle marketing is a massive part of how social media marketing works and it only makes sense for people who care about health to promote their message, to market their lifestyle, on those channels. Unfortunately, they are not living up to their own mission statement: to engage, educate, and empower. At best, they are doing some good in the second category, but without channels on all the relevant social media platforms how do they imagine they will create engagement?

We must not continue to fail in the competition for the public’s attention. Brands selling junk food understand the power of marketing and are winning the day. So-called health food is still a niche market. Organic is becoming more and more mainstream, but too slowly. If we truly want to promote healthy lifestyles to prevent disease and to create competitive advantage, then we need to market the lifestyle. 

Imagine if the U.S. Department of Health took an aggressive approach and invested heavily in social media and content marketing. Nolan Ryan and Arnold Schwarzenegger are the two famous influencers they have used in the past and they did have an impact. They were influential. Imagine if the President’s Council on Sports, Fitness, & Nutrition were able to recruit thousands or hundreds of thousands of influencers to promote their message. What if brands who want to produce health-conscious food products were given loans or grants to develop and market those products?

We are losing the health wars. Michelle Obama started an initiative called “Let’s Move” that had a strong ambition. Their website states that they are “dedicated to solving the problem of obesity within a generation.” Their methodology on how to achieve that was not and is not robust enough to even move the needle in the right direction. Indeed, rates of obesity are increasing with no sign of moving in the opposite direction. We can’t imagine that simply providing people with education about fitness is going to motivate them to make the lifestyle changes necessary. Lifestyle marketing is the answer to the lifestyle problem that is linked to obesity. If we want people to eat better and to exercise more, then we need to develop those products and market the lifestyle. It is a contest for the attention of the U.S. public’s attention and the side selling junk food and sedentary entertainment sure are not waiting around to see if people will choose them. They are aggressively marketing a lifestyle based around their products, and it is working.

Train for the Change You Want to See: GYB Strength

We have the occasion, during this period of life interrupted, to think about one of life’s great questions: how do we create social change? There are so many ways to approach this topic and I think that one of the great things about contemporary culture and social media is our ability to see plenty of examples and to learn from our peers. 

When you stop and look at the flow of history with the objective of seeing how social change occurs, it becomes clear that most of what we see as social equilibrium is merely an angle of repose that has resulted in a dynamic balance from ages of struggle and collapse. Beneath that image of stability is a violently churning reality. There are multitudes of groups pushing for their own interests and it is some vast turbulent ocean of conflict and cooperation that is keeping things dynamically the same and allowing for some change in certain moments.

We have professional activists who study the situation looking for nodal points of leverage where force or support can be applied to some effect. We have career politicians actively transforming ideas into reality through the drafting of legislation, the execution of mandates, and the judgment of actions. Politics is much bigger than a business or even an industry. Politics are the official and often arbitrary outcomes of power struggles. It is the public story power writes.

It is the people who are doing the struggling, though. In many cases, this struggle results in a form of work that is like existential hysteria, an outward expression of the ultimate grief. The display of displeasure, the story of true human suffering becomes a work, a narrative that can be replayed, retold, reconfigured as evidence supporting our cause. In other words, the people who are publicly hurting are providing us with the ability to discuss our underlying problems. In doing the work to understand how to change the conditions that lead to such unnecessary suffering we are honoring their sacrifice.

In many if not most cases, the people who become national topics of debate do not do so intentionally. Our great change makers often are not volunteering for the job, but people who simply suffer the consequences of an unjust system and who inspire other people through the expression of their suffering. It is through phrases of sheer terror that a truth is illuminated: “I can’t breathe.” It is in the extreme vulnerability of a human being involuntarily brought to the edge of life itself asking for their mother or their father that we see something true about our condition of being. How do we become more humane humans?

Over the weekend, I had the opportunity to work with one of my favorite artists, Gillian Young. She is too many things to name, which is why the title of artist is really the only label that fits. She is a fitness coach, a food influencer, a writer, a fashion model, a social activist and a community builder as well as many other interesting things. One thing she is not, however, is quiet about the change she wants to see.

Whenever I see Gillian in person, I have the feeling that I am in the presence of a superhero. She is an exquisitely beautiful woman, with a fashion forward style, flowing with feminine grace and elegance but accented and accessorized with an edginess that speaks to her strength. Her bright and warm demeanor are offset by a tattoo of a knife, by her shoes. This is a woman, one thinks, capable of being a great friend, a valued collaborator, but also one you do not want to fuck with.

Gillian, like anyone mentally fit enough to pay attention, is on a path of awakening to more of the world’s truths and, as we come to understand the depth of the problems we collectively face, it can be daunting to engage. How do we speak up for what we believe effectively? How can we be positive influences of change? What does that look like? 

For Gillian, as a fitness coach and personal trainer, the answer is through training. You don’t achieve fitness goals overnight. They take work and dedication and discipline. Well, why would we think it would be any different or easier to create a healthier society? It’s not. 

It has often been said, attributed to Ghandi, that one of the best ways to effect change is to be the change you want to see in the world. Gillian is taking this idea to its practical level by training to create the change she wants to see. After all, we can’t just be anything we want without doing the work. We have to practice any art or skill we want to improve.

Taking the discipline and the technique of working towards fitness goals and applying them to building a diverse community, Gillian is modeling an effective approach to changemaking. This is a kind of proactive model of protest. It is about building coalitions and sharing stories so that we can coexist more happily together.

But don’t mistake this movement as a superficial and doomed to fail because overly optimistic flash in the pan. This is not fool’s gold, it’s not gold at all. It is good. The common good. Enlightened self-interest. The social agreement. But remember the tattoo of the knife. In order to build community, you also have to have clear boundaries, and you have to establish a seriousness of your intent to preserve the integrity of the group. We are not fucking around, her smile seems to say.

We are here to do the work, her back states, to create powerful social connections and to articulate our vision of equity and friendship to anyone willing to try. Gillian’s brand name is GYB, the acronym for her full name Gillian Young Barkalow, but it also stands for her motto, her mantra, her mission statement, her mandate: Give Your Best.

Certain people are inspiring to be around because of their verve, their spark, their drive for living and this electrical aura is what makes Gillian such a powerful coach. Following her on social media is witnessing a woman building a movement. If you are looking for motivation in your fitness journey, you should consider an interview with Gillian the Great if you are ready to train for the change you want to see.