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OPINION

Pret A Manger and the lies we’re willing to believe

Pret A Manger has fooled us all into thinking its sandwiches are fresh, making Caroline O’Donoghue suddenly suspicious of other brands

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

Have you fallen for a scam? Could you?

If you grew up online, you tend to be hugely sensitive to potential scams: you know that most Instagram adverts for insanely cheap clothes are probably not what they look like in the photo; you know that Nigerian prince in your Gmail is not who he says he is; you know that being “pre-selected” for a credit card isn’t as huge an honour as it sounds like.

And, yet, I’m scammed every day. By Pret, most recently. In the wake of the tragic story of teenager Natasha Ednan-Laperouse, who died after consuming a Pret sandwich that contained sesame seeds, the public is naturally taking a closer look at the brand. One of the most fascinating pieces of journalism to emerge from the scandal is today’s piece in The Guardian, by Felicity Lawrence. Pret’s wholesome, all-natural image, which boasts baguettes that are “baked throughout the day, the fresher the better”, and a mission statement that is about “doing the right thing… naturally”.

“Natural food, shunning additives, was only a mission statement,” Lawrence writes. “An ideal state not yet fully achieved. And when the company said in marketing that it was ‘doing the right thing… naturally’ it didn’t mean all its food was natural, it merely meant naturally as in ‘of course’.”

In reality, while Pret’s sandwiches are assembled on site, the ingredients are sourced from a long, industrial-scale food chain, and therefore contains a lot of the preservatives, emulsifiers and protein additives that won’t appear on the label. Which is not to say that eating a Pret sandwich isn’t better for you than a McDonald’s (who part-owned the chain until 2008). But the wholesome, all-natural “this is just a humble French kitchen that happens to have over 530 stores nationwide”? It’s a scam.

What makes it such a good scam is that, if you think about it logically for more than 30 seconds, it’s completely obvious. I have been in enough Prets to know that the kitchen space couldn’t possibly be large enough to cook and prepare all those ingredients the way a traditional kitchen would and, even if it were large enough, the food is simply too cheap to support that kind of process. But I believed the Pret lie anyway, because the fantasy of wholesome, homemade, cheap food was too beautiful to deny.

We fall for scams that are barely convincing, not because the scammer is a genius, but because we want to live in a different world to the one we live in

But this is always happening. We fall for scams that are barely convincing, not because the scammer is a genius, but because we want to live in a different world to the one we live in. One where riches can be stumbled upon, vertical stripes make you look taller and breakfast cereal is good for you.

Here is a complete list of the scams I have fallen for:

TRESemmé

The Myth: Remember the ads for TRESemmé, when it first came out? Finally, salon-ready hair was available for regular, everyday women! This is a level of class liberation the likes of which hadn’t been seen since the printing press. Now, everyone can have good hair!

The Scam: Except, every hairdresser worth their salt will tell you that the TRESemmé formula is not only nothing like salon-quality hair products, it's actively harmful to coloured hair. A Canadian salon owner went viral last year for showing the effects of the shampoo on coloured hair – my friends, the video will make your highlights curl up in fear. 

BUM-TONING SHOES

The Myth: When Reebok released their EasyTone trainers in 2011, they inspired a slew of copycat merchandise that claimed that putting mad plastic bubbles in your shoes would help promote “natural instability” (surely an oxymoron??) and mimic the effect of “walking on sand” (which is good for your bum, apparently???). These magic shoes claimed to tone calves 11%, hamstrings by 11% and your bum by 28%.

The Scam: Reebok was fined $350,000 for falsely claiming their EasyTone shoes would tone your legs and bum. They carried on advertising the shoes anyway and were fined $25m by the US Federal Trade Commission in September 2011.

GRANOLA, JUST AS A CONCEPT

The Myth: If I eat a bunch of honeyed oats, sun-crisped raisins and toasted almonds every morning (at £4.95 a box), I will become radiant. All of the bowls in my house will become duck-egg blue, nothing in my kitchen will ever be chipped and oversized white shirts will make me look like the sleepy-eyed girlfriend of a world-famous artist, and not a caterer who is late for work. I will become so strong and brave that I will eat the sun itself.

The Scam: Granola is cereal. It’s just cereal, lads. It’s full of sugar and that’s why, if you eat too much of it, you’ll find yourself yelling Blondie songs at your dog at 11am. Eat a generous bowl of Dorset Cereal and you “could easily consume half your daily calorie allowance at breakfast", says Anna Raymond, dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

SPECIAL K: DROP A JEAN SIZE

The Myth: “Have Special K for breakfast, and then again for lunch or dinner, for two weeks, and you too could drop a jean size!” As a teenager, I found this concept hugely alluring. I could eat my way skinny by consuming my favourite food, breakfast cereal?

The Scam: This is actually not a scam. You could lose up to 6lb on the Drop A Jean Size challenge, provided you ate a balanced third meal. Why? Because eating a bowl of cereal for two of your main meals is to starve yourself. Special K is “low in fullness-promoting fiber and protein” and has very little nutritional worth. The Drop A Jean Size challenge was essentially commercially-sponsored anorexia, and the advertising campaign went on to win a global Effie award for effectiveness in marketing communications. You can decide yourself how much of a scam that is.

@Czaroline

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