When Susan Powter Tried to Stop the Diet Insanity

The infomercial landscape of the 1990s held particular appeal for people looking to pursue self-improvement. Richard Simmons advocated for Deal-a-Meal, a trading card-based diet regimen; Tony Little swore he could whip people into cardiovascular shape with his Gazelle; Chuck Norris promised that the Total Gym and its resistance bands would build muscle.

All of these marketing campaigns were successful to varying degrees, but none reached the heights of a crew-cut, bleached-blonde pitchwoman who insisted that losing weight and raising your self-esteem were not a condition of buying expensive equipment or starving yourself. It was a matter of making smart food choices, minimizing fat intake, and sticking to a moderate exercise routine.

The woman was Susan Powter. In 1993 alone, she sold more than $50 million dollars’ worth of simplified, common-sense advice to an audience that was ready to take a minimalist approach to wellness.

"If you can't pronounce it," she told followers, "don't eat it."

 
 

Like many gurus before her, Powter’s ascension was preceded by considerable challenges in her personal life. Born in Sydney, Australia on December 22, 1957, Powter's family moved to the United States when she was 10 years old. In 1980, her family relocated to Dallas, which is where—one year later—she met and fell “madly in love” with Nic Villareal. The couple married in 1982 and had two sons. But "the marriage was wrong from the start," Powter told People in 1994. "He was young, and we were too different from each other." In 1986, the couple separated. Powter turned to food to help alleviate her stress, estimating she went from 130 to 260 pounds.

Diets and workout routines were not helpful. Powter once said she rented a Jane Fonda Workout tape and found it impenetrable. Instead, she walked, ate only when hungry, cut out sugar and processed foods, and eventually slimmed down to 114 pounds. After her mother passed away in 1988, Powter used the $250,000 inheritance she received to open a Dallas fitness studio that she dubbed the Wellness Center.

By that time, Powter had adopted her soon-to-be-signature closely-cropped hairstyle, and her energy—which one journalist described as being not unlike a “human air raid”—was distinctive. She proselytized to women in supermarket aisles, counseling them on healthier food choices.

In 1990, Powter approached Dallas publicity representative Rusty Robertson with a request for help getting more members into her gym. Robertson, who understood what it took to get the public’s attention, was immediately struck by Powter’s charisma. She booked Powter on radio shows and for lectures and facilitated a book contract with Simon & Schuster. To summarize Powter’s candid approach to weight loss, one that dispensed with calorie counting and constant use of a scale, Robertson used the umbrella term of "Stop the Insanity."

By 1993, the pair had organized an infomercial (shot partially in Robertson’s home) that spoke to an audience stretching far beyond the Dallas area. For $79.80, respondents would get a Stop the Insanity package that included five audio tapes, an exercise video, recipes, a guide to fat content in various foods, and a plastic skin-fold caliper that made rough estimates of body fat percentages. Roughly 200,000 of the kits were sold within the first two weeks of the infomercial’s airing. From there, Powter moved 15,000 of them a week. Devotees could supplement this counseling with a paperback book, Pocket Powter, as well as the main Stop the Insanity title, which paid Powter an initial advance of $400,000.

“You gotta give [infomercial producer] USA Direct credit,” Powter said in 1994. “They had chutzpah. They must have been biting their nails when I went out there in front of a live audience—a bald woman wearing a cut-off T-shirt, and no script. Our infomercials are the only ones that are not scripted. And our audiences are not paid to go 'ohh, ahh.' They're not paid at all. Other companies that we had approached to do our infomercials wanted to change me. They found me too aggressive. Typical male interpretation."

Fueled by a desire to help dieters cut through the noise, Powter advocated a simple approach. “Fat makes you fat,” she insisted, dismissing strategies involving food diaries or convoluted exercise programs. In person, she communicated with a kind of gastronomic evangelism, insisting women needed to be fit and healthy in order to combat the patriarchy. The press made frequent mention of how she had effectively conquered her own personal imbalance of power, with first husband Villareal sharing a two-family duplex with Powter and her second husband, musician Lincoln Apeland.

One part Richard Simmons and one part Betty Friedan, Powter seemed poised to segue from infomercial star to feminist wellness guide. Then she simply disappeared.

 
 

As is often the case with rapid fortune, Powter had problems delegating whose pockets deserved to be filled. She spent a good portion of the late 1990s in a legal battle with former business partner Gerald Frankel, whom she had met at her exercise studio, for rights to her name and the “Stop the Insanity” trademark. ("Susan wants it all," Frankel told reporters in 1995, insisting the deal had been equitable.) The two fought in court for years. While she managed to win her identity, it came at the expense of a personal bankruptcy.

Powter turned down sitcom offers and film roles, preferring to direct her energy toward wellness issues. She didn't want her message to be filtered, which didn't always sit well with radio and television producers, so her talk shows disappeared. Powter largely dropped out of the public eye from 1998 to 2008, resurfacing only when she felt her messages of self-empowerment could be delivered, undiluted, via the internet.

Today, her website seems to be only sporadically updated. The 60-year-old Powter's public appearances are infrequent. Her admonition to reduce fat intake has since been supplanted by advocates of low-carb and high-protein menus, along with strenuous workouts. But for a number of people, Powter was able to cut out the white noise of fad diets and gimmicky machines to create a simple message: Eat less, move more, and the rest takes care of itself.

A Quick History of Hidden Camera TV Commercials

Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube
Consumer Time Capsule, YouTube

At restaurants like Tavern on the Green in New York and Arnaud’s in New Orleans, diners sitting down for formal meals are seen complimenting the waiter on their coffee. Just a few moments later, they’re informed it wasn’t the “gourmet” brew typically served, but a cup of Folgers Instant coffee that had been “secretly switched.” The surprised patrons then heap praise on their duplicitous waitstaff.

This scene and others like it played out hundreds of times in television commercials throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s. Variations date as far back as the 1950s, and some commercials—like Chevrolet's now-infamous 2017 spot that depicted amazed onlookers marveling at the car company's numerous J.D. Power and Associates Awards—still air with regularity. Instead of using actors, the spots purport to highlight the reaction of genuine consumers to products, often with the use of hidden cameras positioned outside the unsuspecting customers' field of vision.

 

Despite skepticism, the people in these ads are often members of the general public offering their unrehearsed response to beverages, laundry detergents, and automobiles. That doesn’t mean, however, that there’s not a little bit of premeditation going on.

The idea of recording spontaneous reactions for advertising purposes dates back to the 1950s, when Procter & Gamble arranged for housewives to compare the whiteness of laundry washed in their Cheer detergent against the comparatively dingier load that resulted after a soak in the competition. The camera wasn’t “hidden” and the spokesman made no secret of his intentions—he was holding a microphone—but the women were approached in a laundromat and not a casting office. Those who appeared in such spots would receive a $108 fee, along with residuals that could add up to thousands if the commercial aired repeatedly.

This approach was refined by Bob Schwartz, a former director of the prank series Candid Camera. In 1969, Schwartz formed Eyeview Films and worked with ad agencies to capture spontaneous reactions to products. An early spot for the floor cleaner Spic and Span was a hit, and other companies and agencies followed the template. For a 1982 spot, Schwartz set up his crew in a supermarket and invited customers to try Oven Fry, a new frozen chicken product from General Mills. The most expressive reactions (“mmm-mmm!”) were invited to consent to be in the commercial.

In more controlled settings, it’s necessary for advertisers to make sure the pool of potential testimonials is suited for the product. Before filming spots like the Folgers tasting, a team of market research employees typically recruited people by inviting them to take part in polls on the street. They’re asked about coffee preferences—the better to establish whether they even like the beverage—and were then invited to a nearby restaurant for a free meal. Out of two dozen couples selected for a Folgers spot in San Francisco in 1980, two or three were selected for the commercial.

 

The Folgers spots aired for years and were memorable for how surprised people appeared to be that they had just consumed granulated crystals instead of fresh-brewed coffee. But that doesn’t mean viewers necessarily believed their reactions. A 1982 consumer survey found that consumers often found their endorsements too stiff, meaning they were prompted, or too natural, which hinted that they might be actors. Though ad agencies went to great lengths to assure authenticity, their praise made audiences dubious.

Why would non-actors shower products with compliments? It takes a bit of psychology on the part of the ad agencies. For Chevrolet's 2017 spot that was ridiculed for people overreacting to the mere sight of a car, one of the participants—who asked to remain anonymous due to a non-disclosure agreement—told The A.V. Club that the upbeat environment and surreal exposure to a new car after agreeing to take part in a market research survey left his group feeling like it would be rude to say anything negative.

“We never retook a take, but you felt really bad about saying something negative about Chevy because there were 50 cameras on you, and it was just this one [host],” he said. “He did this magic trick of making it seem like you were hurting his feelings if you said anything bad about Chevy. You didn’t want to see this guy stop smiling. It was really bizarre.”

Candid? Sure. As candid as if they were among friends and not a squad of marketing executives? That's a different story.

The Great Bart Simpson T-Shirt School Ban of 1990

Courtesy of The Captain's Vintage

At Lutz Elementary School in Fremont, Ohio, principal William Krumnow took to the public address system to deliver an important message. It was April 1990, late in the school year, but Krumnow’s announcement couldn’t wait. Over the intercom, he declared there would be a ban on T-shirts featuring Bart Simpson, the rebellious breakout star of The Simpsons.

Specifically, Krumnow was concerned with a shirt that featured Bart aiming a slingshot with the word underachiever emblazoned in quotes above him. “And proud of it, man!” Bart said. This, Krumnow felt, was an unnecessary bit of subversion in a place of learning.

"To be proud of being an incompetent is a contraction of what we stand for," Krumnow told Deseret News in May of that year. "We strive for excellence and to instill good values in kids … the show teaches the wrong things to students."

Krumnow was not alone. School district administrators in Florida, California, Michigan, Illinois, and Washington, D.C. were cracking down on the surge in Bart shirts, fearing his status as a miscreant would be the wrong kind of role model for kids to emulate.

 

The apparel ban was a result of the success of The Simpsons, which had premiered months earlier on December 17, 1989 and featured a dysfunctional nuclear family consisting of Homer and Marge Simpson and their children, Bart, Lisa, and Maggie. It was an immediate hit for the fledging Fox network and led to a number of merchandising deals.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

While the entire cast of the show was marketable, it was 10-year-old Bart who became the licensing phenomenon. An estimated 15 million Bart shirts were sold in 1990 alone, and there was no mystery as to why the character appealed to kids: He loved skateboarding. He hated school. He was a mirror image of millions of students across America. But unlike many of those students, Bart refused to censor himself, wielding a sharp tongue to match his spiky hair.

“Eat my shorts,” read one of the shirts. “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” asked another.

While some of the shirts, which were priced from $11 to $14, weren’t as inflammatory—Bart urging “Don’t have a cow, man” was the top-seller—the more incendiary designs were what upset school officials. The language was inconsistent with what school districts considered to be appropriate attire, and several dug deep to justify prohibiting students from wearing them. They cited concerns that other students might find the words objectionable or offensive and believed Bart's rogue attitude was incompatible with a respectful environment.

At Memorial Junior High School in Lansing, Michigan, principal James Shrader got on the intercom to inform students the shirts would not be allowed. At Burnham Elementary in Burnham, Illinois, district superintendent—or, as Ralph Wiggum might say, district Super Nintendo—Al Vega was pleased no students had even attempted to wear the shirts.

“Hopefully it’s because parents feel the same way I do,” Vega said. “Why would parents allow kids to wear those to school? I, as a parent, am not going to let my kid wear that to school.”

 

Not all parents were on board with the ban. Orange, California's Jeannette Manning told People she was considering buying a shirt for her son “on principle.” Another mother, Maira Romero, couldn't understand why her 11-year-old son Alex was being reprimanded for wearing the shirt. "I’d much rather have him wearing a Bart Simpson [shirt] than one of those rock and roll T-shirts with the skull and crossbones on it,” Romero said.

Cartoonist and creator of "The Simpsons" stands 1992, with a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson
'The Simpsons' creator Matt Groening stands next to a cardboard cutout of Bart Simpson in 1992.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Child development experts weren’t so sure, either. Some pointed out that when something is labeled off-limits, it becomes more attractive to teens who are prone to rebellion. Ignoring it and dismissing it as a fad was a better option, some said. At Wells High School in Chicago, principal David Peterson dismissed the idea the shirts had any kind of negative influence.

“It’s like a kid saying, ‘I hate school,’” he said. “Am I going to suspend him for that? I don’t think so.”

Students caught wearing the Bart shirts faced a variety of repercussions. At Brookwood Junior High in Glenwood, Illinois, teachers ordered students wearing the shirts to call their parents and have them bring a change of clothing. Other schools forced kids to turn the shirts inside-out. Some had teachers cover the offending words with tape. The controversy grew so widespread that by the summer of 1990, retail chain JCPenney decided to take the “underachiever” shirts off shelves in kid’s sizes. What some had dubbed the Bartlash had reached new heights.

 

Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, thought the shirt prohibition was silly. “I have no comment,” he said when asked about the backlash. “My folks taught me to respect elementary school principals, even the ones who have nothing better to do than tell kids what to wear.” But Groening couldn’t resist pointing out that the word “underachiever” appeared on the shirt in quotes, indicating that it was his (fictional) school officials who had given him that label. Bart was simply playing the hand he had been dealt.

Bart Simpson of 'The Simpsons' television series is pictured on a T-shirt
Amazon

“He didn’t call himself an underachiever,” Groening said. “He does not aspire to be an underachiever. If you’ll recall, this last season, Bart did save France.” (In “The Crepes of Wrath,” which aired in April 1990, Bart is sent to France as a foreign exchange student and exposes his two winemaking hosts who spike their product with antifreeze. He learns French in the process.)

While The Simpsons has gone on to broadcast another 30 seasons of television (and counting), observers who considered the shirts to be fads were correct. The furor quickly died down and kids found new iconography to wear. By June 1991, Simpsons shirts had been discarded in exchange for the cast of Fox’s other hit series, the sketch comedy In Living Color. (Homey the Clown was a bestseller.)

Today, you can find vintage Bart shirts on eBay or online clothing shops like The Captain's Vintage, which offers a classic Bart "Who the hell are you?" shirt in white for $89.99.

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