Obesity is becoming one of the fastest-growing disorders plaguing the United States, affecting adults and children alike. Two-thirds of adults nationwide are considered overweight or obese, as are one-third of children and adolescents (NIDDK, 2012). Obesity rates have been increasing since the 1960s, prompting researchers to study societal factors contributing to this epidemic.
A new study conducted by Yale researchers Harris et al. and published in Health Psychology has provided evidence to suggest that food commercials encourage snacking by television audiences while they watch their favorite shows. This is unsurprising, as television is a widely accessible and influential form of media, and the sole purpose of commercials is to persuade viewers. But is this persuasion inadvertently contributing to the nation’s rise in obesity?
The answer was found when elementary school students watched an episode of a cartoon, and were given a bowl of goldfish crackers to snack on. The children who watched the cartoon with commercials that advertised unhealthy snack foods, including sugary cereal and potato chips, ate a whopping 45% more goldfish than those who saw commercials advertising entertainment products. This result is particularly alarming, since consequently, this additional consumption can cause extra weight to add up. The researchers estimate that this additional snacking can be responsible for a gain of almost ten pounds per year! This does not bode well for children who snack while watching their favorite television programs, but does this finding also apply to adults?
In a second experiment, adults were shown an episode of a comedy television show, which contained eleven total commercials. Across the board, participants who saw the fun and exciting advertisements for unhealthy snacks ate significantly more, and for a longer duration, than those who saw commercials stressing nutritional benefits of food and those who watched entirely non-food commercials. Perhaps most interesting about the results of the study is that “restrained eaters,” people who were in the process of dieting, were the most affected by advertising messages. They ate significantly more after seeing the snack ads, despite reporting feeling less hungry after watching them, and more hungry after seeing the nutritional ads. Not only do these results show that these types of advertisements cause viewers to eat when they are not hungry, but they also encourage dieters to cheat.
Meanwhile, the advertisements that focused on nutrition were found to discourage snacking, because while participants reported being hungry after watching them, less food was eaten overall. However, this type of advertising did not change the healthiness of the chosen snacks, meaning that ads emphasizing nutrition do not necessarily drive viewers to eat healthier. In addition, the eating was done after the show’s conclusion, indicating that the effects of advertising permeate our daily habits, even after shutting off the TV. The research supported the idea that food commercials encourage unhealthy eating, indicating a possible root cause of obesity in America. Hope, however, is not lost. Awareness of the power commercials can hold over their audience is the first step to combating their influence.