Process Blog Home

Selling American Vigor

A poster shows several milkshakes and a TV set on the steps of an escalator. The poster includes the text "The milkshake, too much TV, the escalator and the elevator are killing us." The poster also has the logo of the Presidential Physical Fitness Award.

A public service announcement of the PCPF/Ad Council from the late-1960s. It appeals to youth, encouraging them to opt into voluntary fitness programming. Records of Temporary Committees, Commission, and Boards, President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

Starting this May, the FDA is expected to implement a long-delayed component of the Affordable Care Act: mandatory calorie counts on chain restaurant menus. The measure is one of many contemporary attempts to improve the health and shape the bodies of Americans. While these efforts—calorie counts, nutrition labeling, soda taxes—typically involve only the gentlest “nudge” of federal power, they still are deeply controversial. Americans fear government overreach, and the intimate terrain of the body is an especially unpopular location for regulation. Yet citizen health, physique, and weight have been important to the state for military, labor, and economic reasons. As a result, policy-making in this arena is often a delicate dance.

At mid-century, President John F. Kennedy lamented American unfitness, blaming automation, transportation, and sedentary entertainment options for the draining of American vigor. Leisure and luxury, he explained, could be “the instruments of the decline of our national vitality” and prevent continued national progress. The Kennedy administration expanded the President’s Council on Physical Fitness (PCPF), an Eisenhower administration creation that sought to improve citizen bodies by coaxing participation, not coercing it. As a Cold War-era program, the PCPF imagined its approach to fitness in sharp contrast to the regimented, totalitarian approach to fitness, however exaggerated, it imagined in the U.S.S.R. At the same time, deep anxieties about American unfitness, tied both to WWII military rejection rates and to postwar affluence, meant some kind of political intervention was necessary. The trick would be in improving American bodies without undermining notions of freedom. As Bud Wilkinson, former head coach of the Oklahoma Sooners and a celebrity spokesman for the President’s Council in the mid-1960s, argued, “no free man can admire the Soviet system” of callisthenic drills. At the same time, though, he admitted “the system has its strengths.”[1]

Always contrasting its project with the body projects of the Soviets, the council embraced capitalism, consumer culture, and notions of voluntary participation to promote changes in American physique. In these years, the council used the mass media, especially the growing advertising industry and the Ad Council, in place of a regulatory apparatus. The Ad Council (the pro-bono arm of the advertising industry) and the PCPF united to promote fitness with a series of print and radio ads, advice books and booklets, and music and film specials. The Ad Council’s large collection of designers and writers and its extensive network of media contacts made it simple to run countless ads and get plenty of free airtime. “We cannot force youth to become fit,” explained one PCPF bureaucrat, “we must motivate them to want to do the things that will make them fit.”

The tension between a strong belief in the need for improved male physique and an equally strong belief in promoting male autonomy and independence led to the strange form taken by postwar fitness policy. Wilkinson, for instance, worried that American boys would not be as fit “as the Russians who will challenge them in the years to come.” He decried the poor stamina and “flabby muscles” of American youth, and complained that key American values like vigor, sacrifice, and work were emphasized less and less. At the end of World War II, the Federal Security Agency argued that “Japan would not have dared attack us if she had not known of our physical softness and lack of fitness.”[2] General Lewis B. Hershey, director of the Selective Service System, declared Americans were, “a Nation of Weaklings.”[3] Manly American strength would protect the nation, and would be critical to any lasting postwar peace, these leaders suggested. When aggressive solutions like Universal Military Training were floated, however, they proved too at odds with postwar norms to implement.

Instead, the market-oriented and voluntary President’s Council on Physical Fitness was meant to fill the void. In the first year of the active PCPF and Ad Council partnership, they placed ads with more than 600 newspapers, 650 television stations, and 3,500 radio stations. These spots were designed and placed by the Ad Council, especially relying on the advertising firm Young and Rubicam.[4] In 1963 the President’s Council reported that it had used 15 million dollars of advertising “at no cost to taxpayers.”[5] With the organizational support of the Ad Council and the financial support of the Equitable Life Insurance Company, the President’s Council even released a film. Youth Physical Fitness: A Report to the Nation included appearances by Gene Kelly, Bob Hope, Alan Shepard, and, of course, John F. Kennedy.[6] The film reached an audience of more than 84,000 citizens who saw it on the big screen, and another three million who saw it during one of the film’s ninety television screenings.[7]

In addition to films, PCPF advertising memorably included the calisthenics song “Chicken Fat,” written by Meredith Wilson (better known for composing The Music Man) and sung by Robert Preston (who starred in The Music ManMame, and other Broadway productions). “Chicken Fat” sold 115,000 records in its first year of release.[8] Despite its crossover appeal, the intended audience for “Chicken Fat” was actually primary schools. Teachers played the records in the classroom (or over the school’s intercom first thing in the morning). The song exhorted its listeners to exercise “every morning,” and “not just now and then.” It sang exercisers through toe touches, push-ups, and marching in place, and added messages about the importance of regular exercise and vigor. The PCPF-commissioned song lasted just under six-and-a-half minutes (the long version), which hardly made for a lengthy sweat session. “Chicken Fat” was more messaging than programming. Like other PCPF campaigns, the song reminded youth of the importance of a hard (not soft) body and of vigor as a component of good citizenship. As the song phrased it, “nuts to the flabby guys!” Its lyrics insisted instead that kids “give that chicken fat back to the chicken, and don’t be chicken again.” With the relationship between fat and cowardice (being “chicken”) established, the song exhorted all the students to sing the final refrain aloud to really hammer it in: “go, you chicken fat, go away!” The song played on anxieties about military rejection rates and criticized children whose physique might be headed in that direction, but it did so with a veneer of pep and playfulness characteristic of the era. .

The next year, the administration pressed harder for fitness testing and group calisthenics by urging schools and school boards to initiate programs based on PCPF booklets.[9] Kennedy emphasized just how voluntary the programming they were pushing was. “The Council does not desire to prescribe specific activities or tests. However, it strongly encourages every school to adopt the basic philosophy of Wilkinson’s program.” As a starting point, the president recommended that interested parties send forty cents to the U.S. Government Printing Office for a copy.[10] Such campaign-based programming further distanced the council from those it was theoretically designed to serve. Still, the program was working when measured against President’s Council goals: almost 28,000 schools had requested programming information from the federal agency by 1964.[11]

In the 1950s and 1960s, motivated by anti-Communism and a fear of state overreach, the President’s Council tried to simultaneously grow and remain small. Instead of delivering programming, drafting regulations, or funding local level innovation, the council focused above all on public service announcements and the publication of supplementary materials. This approach had inherent problems. As Bud Wilkinson once described, “nobody’s really against us or this program, but nobody’s really for it, or if they are they only pay lip service to it.”[12] For the President’s Council, the possibility that no one would take the fitness program seriously was still preferable to an expansion of state power or bureaucracy. Ironically, as Kennedy blamed affluence and consumer culture for weakening America, advertising campaigns became one of the few politically acceptable ways of trying to physically strengthen citizens.

Rachel Louise Moran is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of North Texas. Her forthcoming book, Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique, examines the relationship between the government and body weight in the 20th century U.S.

[1] Bud Wilkinson, “Youth Fitness,” Parade (September 3, 1961): 4.

[2] “Information Guide: The Committee on Physical Fitness,” March 1945, National Archives at College Park, College Park, Maryland (hereafter cited as NACP), Record Group 208, Records of the Office of War Information, entry NC-148 84, Records of Natalie Davisen, box 3, folder: Physical Fitness.

[3] Gen. Lewis B. Hershey, “Need for a Campaign for Physical Fitness,” June 17, 1956, 1, John F. Kennedy Library, Boston, MA (hereafter cited as Kennedy Library), President’s Office, Departments and Agencies, box 94, folder: 2/61–11/62.

[4] Ad Council Meeting Minutes, 6, Ad Council Archives, University of Illinois, Urbana, RS:13/2/201, folder: “Meeting Minutes, May–June 1962.”

[5] Report to the President, July 30, 1964, 9, NACP, RG 220, Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, Entry A1 34125A, Records of the President’s Commission on Physical Fitness, box 3, folder: Publications 8.

[6] Newsletter from the President’s Council on Physical Fitness (November 8, 1963): 2–3, NACP, RG 220, Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, Entry A1 34125A, Records of the President’s Commission on Physical Fitness , box 1, folder 2.

[7] Report to the President, December 20, 1962, 7, NACP, RG 220, Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, Entry A1 34125A, Records of the President’s Commission on Physical Fitness, box 3, folder: Publications 8.

[8] Newsletter from the President’s Council on Youth Fitness (November 8, 1963): 2, NACP, RG 220, Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, Entry A1 34125A, Records of the President’s Commission on Physical Fitness, box 1, folder 2.

[9] Edward T. Folliard, “Physical Fitness Levels Deplored by President,” Baltimore Sun (July 8, 1962).

[10] The President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Statements by the President (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1963).

[11] 4 Years for Fitness, 1961–1965: A Report to the President (October 1965): 17, NACP, RG 220, Records of Temporary Committees, Commissions, and Boards, Entry A1 34125A, Records of the President’s Commission on Physical Fitness, box 3, folder: Publications 8.

[12] “Bud Wilkinson Drumming for Youth Fitness,” Chicago Tribune (August 4, 1962).