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Nov. 4 2009 - 11:40 am | 1,208 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Food Ads Make You Fat… Even If You Don’t Buy the Food

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Image by doviende via Flickr

You’re sitting at home and you see an ad on TV for junk food. Fast food, some sugary cereal, a hot dog wrapped in a waffle wrapped in bacon wrapped in whale blubber. Whatever. Even if you don’t go out and buy this product, can the ad itself contribute to making you fat?

Bad news, folks: It can.

At least that’s the conclusion of a new paper (abstract; PDF) out in Health Psychology. Here’s the nut of the abstract:

Children consumed 45% more when exposed to food advertising. Adults consumed more of both healthy and unhealthy snack foods following exposure to snack food advertising compared to the other conditions. In both experiments, food advertising increased consumption of products not in the presented advertisements, and these effects were not related to reported hunger or other conscious influences.

Steve Genco, over at Lucid Thoughts, describes the experimental design:

The study design is an excellent example of using unobtrusive measures to capture automatic, nonconscious responses to stimuli.  In a first experiment, about 120 grade school students were shown a kids’ cartoon show.  Half of the children saw snack food ads during the show, the other half saw ads not associated with food.  Children watched alone, not in groups.  While watching, the children were given a bowl of “goldfish” crackers.  The snack was not among the foods advertised.  The dependent variable was the amount of goldfish crackers consumed during the show.

In a second experiment, about 100 adults watched a TV show with advertising breaks.  Some saw consumption-oriented snack food ads, some saw nutrition-oriented food ads, and some saw only non-food ads.  No snacks were offered during viewing, but after the viewing session subjects were invited to a “separate” experiment in which they were interviewed about some unrelated consumer products.  During those interviews, several snacks were provided – from healthy (carrots and celery) to moderately healthy (trail mix and multi-grain tortilla chips) to nutrient-poor (mini chocolate chip cookies and cheesy snack mix).  The dependent variable was the amount and type of food consumed during the interview.

Basically, the idea seems to be that seeing these food ads makes you think about being hungry and about eating, thus you eat more. And it doesn’t much matter what was advertised, you’ll eat more of whatever’s at hand. (Even if the ad’s for junk food, you’ll eat more junk food and more healthy food.)

What’s to be done? Well, I’m sure the public-health community probably sees this as a nice rationale for banning food ads of any kind. But I think it points to a more basic truth that underlies why trying to control things like this is useless: We’re constantly influenced by subconscious effects like this. Someone’s eating a burger in a TV show. Someone on the couch next to you is eating. Your neighbors downstairs are cooking something delicious. There are a million things that can prime you to mindless eating. The individual just has to be aware of this and maybe not have snacks at hand at all times.

Whatever one’s individual strategy, trying to control such influences at the societal level is most likely pointless.


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    I'm a freelance writer and blogger based in Brooklyn, NY. My background is mostly in politics. I've worked on the editorial boards of the New York Sun and New York Post. In 2006, I wrote a book, "The Elephant in the Room: Evangelicals, Libertarians, and the Battle to Control the Republican Party" (Wiley). I've also done my share of freelancing, for places like the Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Reason, and RealClearPolitics.

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