Shocking secrets of Internet marketing revealed!

What is it with the Internet and belly fat?

When I finally got my lazy tush onto Facebook and Twitter last year—the kids more or less demanded it—this was one of the first questions that arose in my mind. You start clicking on those links your friends post for wholesome entertainments like barn-owl nest cams and old Monty Python clips, and then you see something else interesting and click on that, and next thing you know, you've wandered into the deep, dark woods, where surveys about "Obamacare" and near-pornographic photos of cupcakes flash in the margins. (Actually, it's less like the Brothers Grimm and more like a neighborhood where the windows are broken, and you can smell garbage.)

But, still, why belly fat? In a way, the answer is obvious: Years of sitting around and staring at a screen all day do bad things to your body, and fat—unlike, say, bone-mineral loss, clogged arteries and elevated blood sugar—is a visible effect. And since hanging out online helps create the problem, the correct medium on which to reach the potential belly-fat market is a no-brainer.

As far as I can tell, the overwhelming concern with belly fat (as opposed to otherwise-located fat) has been fanned by research findings about the effects of accumulated abdominal fat on health. These have been avidly interpreted by marketers who perfectly understand our eagerness to be distracted from the main issue. "It's not that I'm overweight, you see, it's that I have this problem, specifically, with belly fat."

What to do about it? The obvious answer—put down the energy drink; get up from in front of the computer or TV right now; and go for a walk (to be repeated tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow)—is unappealing and, more to the point, impossible to monetize. No, what you need are "Top 55 belly fat fighting foods," "Secrets of a flat belly," "The Flat Belly Solution" (just $47) and many more pages of "Products and services that will help you with Stomach Fat."

This is all underpinned and reinforced by a blizzard of objective-looking online wisdom: "Dieting, exercise rarely work for belly fat," "Belly fat linked to increased death risk," and the enigmatic and ominous "Pot-belly fat is the worst kind."

The primitive look of the ads, with crude but effective drawings of sad-looking people contemplating their grotesquely sagging bodies, is part of the come-on; that look functions like the misspellings on the homemade signs for rigged roadside gambling scams along highways in the Deep South. Obviously, very simple people, people who don't know much at all, have posted these ingenuous little ads—why, they remind you of the hand-lettered notices for yard sales taped to light poles around town. These could be your friends and neighbors, people just like you, folks who want to make thousands a week at home, hoodwink the IRS and get rid of their wrinkles.

For the same reason, I suspect, the wording of the come-ons is usually tweaked. Personally, I'm arrested, if not exactly shocked, by the use of the word "shocking" in online ads—as in "Shocking weight-loss secret!" It's the oldest sell in the books—surprising, secret knowledge that can be yours for a price—but it's a sell that's forever potent. (Let's not forget that a think-and-get-rich book entitled simply The Secret was a huge fad a few years ago. That, of course, was back in the heady, innocent days of Flip This House and The Millionaire Next Door. Alas, how young we all were in 2006.)

Yet I've never seen "shocking" used in this way outside of the Internet—something that's shocking isn't usually something you want to know. Except, of course, when it comes to gossip. So what's happening, I think, is that in their life-and-death struggle to get attention, Internet advertisers are trying to color their supposed secrets with the icky oohlala of, say, video of Snooki drunk or Charlie Sheen's latest rant. My prediction is that "shocking" is headed down the same road, from fear to attraction, traveled previously by "fantastic" (originally: something imagined), "tremendous" (causing shaking or quaking) and "terrific" (terrifying).

This is one of the cool things about the Internet: You can watch language morph in real time. (Check out UrbanDictionary if you like this sort of thing.) There's an awful lot of belly fat that comes along with the entertainment, but, hey—do I have a secret for you.

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