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Kim Kardashian Flat Tummy Co
Kim Kardashian poses with a Flat Tummy Co appetite suppressant lollipopvia @kimkardashian

How an Instagram diet brand uses girl power to sell hunger

Flat Tummy Co will call you babe AND sell you an appetite suppressing lollipop!

In May, Kim Kardashian posted a picture to over 100 million followers in which she sucked seductively on a red, Lolita-esque lollipop. “You guys…@flattummyco just dropped a new product. They’re Appetite Suppressant Lollipops and they’re literally unreal,” she wrote, in a post that contained a discount code and appeared clearly sponsored, despite lacking the legally required disclosure that it was an advert.

The response was swift, justified, outrage. “Please tell me this is a joke and you wouldn’t actually promote an appetite suppressant with how much influence you have,” one commenter wrote, while TV presenter Jameela Jamil called Kardashian “a terrible and toxic influence on young girls”. Kardashian didn’t remove the image, though she did delete its caption, replacing it with a single rainbow lollipop emoji. The brand remained tagged, and it was Kardashian herself who bore the brunt of the anger.

Now, a new Flat Tummy Co image is drawing criticism on social media – a series of huge pink billboards, displayed in New York’s Times Square, which advertise the same lollipops. “Got cravings? Girl, tell them to #suckit,” the enormous words read, declaring that the company has “1.5 million BABES and counting” on board. The image was taken and tweeted by New York-based social media manager Sophie Vershbow. “Hey Twitter, Let’s use our power for good by guilting @FlatTummyCo into taking down their Times Square billboard advertising appetite suppressants. Love, A former-anorexic teenage girl,” she wrote. Jamil weighed in soon after: “EVEN TIMES SQUARE IS TELLING WOMEN TO EAT LESS NOW? Have we actually gone mad?”

“I took the picture on Monday night when, after weeks of walking by the billboard on my way to the gym, I couldn't take it anymore,” Vershbow told Dazed, saying she was familiar with the brand’s products after seeing sponsored posts on Instagram. “That in and of itself always bothered me, but seeing a billboard in the epicentre of New York City felt worse somehow. As an eating disorder survivor, I can choose not to follow social media accounts that post triggering content. I can't ignore a billboard on my commute, and neither can anyone else who unexpectedly walks by it.”

The company at the centre of it all, Flat Tummy Co, was founded in 2013 in Australia by husband and wife duo Bec and Tim Polmear, before being acquired in 2015 by publicly listed Synergy CHC Corp, an American consumer health company. It first gained traction for its Flat Tummy Tea, a product marketed by celebrities including Amber Rose, Kylie Jenner, Khloe and Kourtney Kardashian; sponsored posts by celebrities with large followings are key to its modus operandi. "Over the last few years, we've developed an innovative, unique and very effective way to reach targeted consumers through social media,” director Tim Polmear shared in a release discussing the company’s acquisition, which also shares that its target audience is “a global, 20-30-year-old female, predominantly American market”.

That market is spoken to almost exclusively in language which mirrors the contemporary, empowerment-washed lingo of the now-omnipresent faux-feminist branding I’ve previously written about; customers are never women, let alone people – they are “babes” or “girls”. Millennial pink is the colour of choice, and #relatable social media posts speak to followers as if they are their supportive friend in a group WhatsApp chat rather than a profit-driven company selling them products that are supposed to make them thinner. In other words, patriarchal expectations about women’s bodies and how much space they should take up are disguised in insidious, pseudo-feminist language, which emphasises autonomy and decision-making, drawing on a kind of confessional tone when it comes to things like eating junk food.

“A banana is 105 calories. A glass of prosecco is 80. Choose wisely, babes,” reads one Instagram post by Flat Tummy Co. “Girl we gotta say, you’re freakin’ killing it. #ohyeah” says a caption beneath a ‘before and after’ collage of a customer. “Get ready, babe. Because soon enough, you're gonna be looking good, feeling fiiiine and rocking it like the 12/10 that you are”, the website declares.

“The faux empowerment of Flat Tummy Co is maddening,” Vershbow says. “The brand wants to appear as your best friend with a great new diet tip, rather than a corporation selling you a product to fix a problem you don't have, but society tells you needs solving.”

Flat Tummy Co’s products are supported with glowing reviews – the Tea has almost 14,000 ‘verified’ posts on the site, with an average rating of 4.7/5. Bart De Langhe, an Associate Professor in the Department of Marketing at Spain’s ESADE business school, researches online reviews and what they can mean for consumers. He could not tell Dazed categorically whether Flat Tummy Co’s ratings were fake, however he says the company might have incentivised purchasers to write positive reviews – considering that the same product on Amazon is rated 3.3 stars, and that on average, “maybe 1% of all consumers has ever posted a review online.” “If you ask me, (the company is) well aware that reviews are going to drive sales, and it’s doing everything in its power to stimulate customers to write as many five star reviews as possible. I'm pretty confident that the sample of reviews that they're providing on their website is not a representative sample,” he commented. Reviews on other sites openly call the company a scam

“The faux empowerment of Flat Tummy Co is maddening. The brand wants to appear as your best friend with a great new diet tip, rather than a corporation selling you a product to fix a problem you don't have” – Sophie Vershbow

But whether or not Flat Tummy Co’s products actually work, customers are incentivised to spread the word through an ‘ambassador program’. “Get as many babes as you can to order using your personalised link, and you’ll receive $10 CASH in your account each time one of them makes a purchase for the first time!” the website encourages. This is perhaps part of the reason there are so many women in leggings posing with the product on IG – not only do they get to feel a bit like a Kardashian, they get a cash kickback too. It’s the saccharine, ‘girl power’ tone of voice which is particularly offensive about all of this. Girls on the @flattummyco Instagram happily pose with colourful lollipops that reduce “cravings”, otherwise known as feelings of hunger, and encourage others to do the same.

Tom Quinn, the Director of External Affairs for Beat, a UK-based charity supporting those affected by eating disorders, says that while appetite suppressants like the lollipops can’t cause EDs, they “are used by people with restrictive eating disorders like anorexia, and (we) feel it is harmful to widely distribute and promote such products.” According to Beat, 1.25 million people in the UK have an eating disorder, and anorexia has the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.

Diet pills, fads, and products are nothing new. What is new is the marketing tactics behind them – using a language of empowerment to turn a product designed to play on women’s insecurities into something that’s fun, and even somehow feminist. Feeling hungry, babe? Never mind that it’s the result of a completely natural human bodily function that’s literally essential to life! Suck on this totally cute lollipop, girl! Why don’t you snap a selfie while you’re at it, hun! Show the world you’re the kind of badass bitch that doesn’t need a caloric intake!

At the time of publishing, Flat Tummy Co did not respond to a request for comment. It did, however, block me on Instagram.

If you would like help or support overcoming an eating disorder, visit Beat’s website here.