Food and Advertising

By Katie, 11:55 am

On any given day, we are all wearing multiple hats. We’re daughters, sons, mothers, and fathers. We’re spouses, partners, and friends. We’re students and employees. We’re artists, writers, and musicians.

We also all play another role, yet its one that most of us rarely think about: the role of consumer.

As consumers, we are constantly subjected to companies’ attempts – sometimes obvious, sometimes not – to grab our attention, to convince us their product is worthy of our hard-earned cash. We are bombarded with advertisements, commercials, flyers, endorsements, and circulars promoting everything from clothing to housing to prescription medications. And, of course, the food industry is no exception.

In fact, the food industry is one of the top advertisers in the United States.

In thinking about the topic of food and advertising, I’ve been asking myself two questions. First, are we really that susceptible to it in the first place? And second, should it be regulated?

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How powerful are advertisements, really?

I don’t think there’s one single answer to this question; it varies from person to person. For example, my mom can see a commercial on television for Dairy Queen, and it will haunt her for days until she finally gives in and buys an Oreo Blizzard. I, on the other hand, like to consider myself immune to the clever tricks of advertisers. (Although this may be a self-fulfilling prophesy. I hate the idea of being mentally manipulated by a corporation so much that seeing a commercial often makes me go out of my way to not purchase the product. Go figure. :roll: .)

But my attention was recently drawn to a study conducted at Baylor College of Medicine (reported on by The New York Times Magazine‘s Clive Thompson in 2003). The study examined the brains of participants as they taste-tested Coke and Pepsi. Interestingly, when participants tasted the two sodas without knowing which was which, they preferred Pepsi. However, when they were aware of the brands, they preferred Coke.

Using MRI brain scans, researchers discovered that during the two taste tests, different areas of the brain became more excited. In the blind test, the area of the brain that processes feelings of reward lit up. During the test with the brands exposed, the area of the brain associated with memory lit up. What does this all mean? Basically, our food preferences go far beyond our taste buds; they are also influenced by our past impressions and experiences, which includes all of the advertising our brains take in each and every day.

Should food advertising be regulated?

If it’s true that we are susceptible to the messages of advertisers – even if we think we aren’t – then does it make sense for such messages to be regulated, particularly when they are promoting food and beverages that do more harm than good for our bodies? It’s a question that’s open for debate.

At this point, several European countries say yes, while in general the United States says no. For example, Ireland bans all television commercials for fast food and requires that candy wrappers contain a “warning” (much like the Surgeon General’s warning on cigarettes) that the candy should be eaten in moderation (source).

And what about advertising geared toward children? According to the same article referenced above, Sweden, Norway, Austria, and Luxembourg ban television advertising to children completely, and Belgium, France, and Portugal ban school-based marketing. In the United States, the food industry spends over $10 billion per year on advertising geared toward kids (source). And of course most of these advertisements aren’t promoting fruits and vegetables; they’re promoting sugary cereals and candies.

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But does that make it wrong? And is it only an issue in regards to unhealthy food, or should we somehow be protected from advertising messages of all kinds? Then who is to say which messages are acceptable and which are not?

I find these questions really interesting, particularly because I believe there are no easy, definite answers. I’d love to hear what you think!

Are you susceptible to the messages of food advertisements? Do you think food marketing should be more regulated? Why or why not?

7 Responses to “Food and Advertising”

  1. Nicole, RD says:

    Advertisement does send powerful messages, but which came first, the egg or the chicken? Meaning, Americans are fueling the fire, why would it simmer? As much as I detest the amount of food and fast food advertisements, I guess I can’t blame them. Who doesn’t want more money and success? Most do, anyways. I think the responsibility has to come back to the consumer, as you discussed — we have to own up to our actions. I love a McD’s cheeseburger all the time, and while it would certainly be more convenient and cheaper to swing by the drive through 3x a day, I take ownership over my actions and understand that my future will be happier and healthier thanks to the decisions I make today! Woot! Awesome job, and GREAT topic!!

    • Katie says:

      I love what you said about ownership! Ultimately, what I put into MY body is MY decision. And, ultimately, it is my decision which food products I choose to spend my money on.

  2. Lisa says:

    This is a really interesting discussion. I agree with you, and Nicole, that the consumer needs to show restraint and make healthy decisions on their own. We can’t expect or need the government to regulate everything. That’s just ridiculous and can get out of hand quickly. But, the sad truth is that a lot of people don’t have much self restraint or the un-healthy foods are just easier and cheaper to buy than the healthy ones. I do think that some advertisements can be misleading, which does need to be addressed. It also worries me a bit that the cereals with the highest amts of sugar and directed to children are the same ones that have the highest advertising spends.
    This is a debate that I think will last for years and never be fully resolved.
    (first time stopping by! I’m sure I’ll be back to read more!)

    • Katie says:

      I think your point about misleading advertising is a really important one! So many companies are slapping labels on their products to make them appear healthier, even though the product itself hasn’t changed. Health itself becomes a marketing tool, but not always an honest one. So keeping companies accountable is important. At the same time, it isn’t a food corporation’s responsibility to educate the public about health and nutrition; that responsibility remains with us.

      So glad you stopped by!

  3. Interesting post!

    I have to say, I don’t believe advertising for food should be regulated. I think everything should be honest, yes, and patently false claims should be prosecuted, but I’m not one for government babysitting.

    Parents are the ones who should be saying “no” to their children and teaching them healthy food choices. I kind of see it as analogous to super-religious families that isolate their kids from people of different faiths, and then boast about how strong THEIR faith is when they’re never challenging it. We should teach our kids to be smart and see through the crap on TV, rather than prevent them from ever having to see it in the first place. They’re going to be exposed to junk food outside of advertising, and it’s best for them to respond with, “This is bad for me, and this is why,” rather than, “Hmm, what’s this?”

    If that makes any sense.

    • Katie says:

      That makes total sense! I think you’re right that one piece of this discussion that’s missing is the role of parents. And I get what you’re saying about how this applies to more than just food choices – it’s that line between what children should be protected from, and what they should be exposed to as a way of teaching and preparing them for the real world.

      It makes me wonder about children whose parents never allow them to have any sugar or other unhealthy foods growing up. When they are exposed to sugar, do they not really want it, or do they go crazy and eat it in vast amounts?

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