Are Snack Food Commercials Behind the Obesity Epidemic?

Common sense would suggest that too much TV can lead to obesity due to lack of activity, but recent research at Yale University suggests an additional, more scientific explanation. Two recent studies indicate that exposure to food advertisements can lead to automatic snacking behavior.  This snacking behavior may be a great contributor to the current obesity epidemic.

During the first experiment, 118 children watched the same 14-minute cartoon, broken up by four 30-second commercials. However, the content of the commercials differed by group: in one, the commercials advertised unhealthy foods.  These advertisements, similar to the food advertisements normally directed at children, included messages of fun and happiness. The other half of the children watched commercials that were not food-related. During the viewing, each child was given goldflish crackers and water and told that they could snack while watching. The children who viewed the food advertisements ate a hefty 45% more goldfish than the other group of children.

Investigating the same principle in an older age group, a second experiment divided 98 university students into three groups to watch the same television program interspersed with different sets of commercials. One group watched unhealthy food advertisements, one Denmarkwatched nutritional food advertisements, and the third watched non-food related commercials.

Following the television viewing, each participant was told to taste each of five foods set on the table before them.  They were invited to eat as much as they wanted, but instructed to take at least one bite of each. As expected, the group who saw the ads for the unhealthy food ate the most, followed by the group which saw the non-food related commercials, and lastly the group who saw the nutritional food commercials.

These results point to the conclusion that unhealthy food advertisements tend to prime short-term, hedonic goals, such as the happiness experienced by the actors in the advertisements. People will act to reach these goals through food consumption, regardless of hunger, in order to try to gain the rewards shown in the advertisements. The conducted experiments add to our understanding of the priming effects of advertisements.  None of the foods eaten by the participants in the experiment were the same foods that were seen in the advertisements, and yet, their overall consumption increased when viewing unhealthy food advertisements.  The viewers will tend to focus on the behaviors of the actors in the commercials and attempt to mimic them, rather than focus on the target food being advertised.

In order to combat obesity, it is crucial to reduce exposure to snack advertisements nationwide. As stated by the U.S. Surgeon General, “Obesity is the fastest growing cause of disease and death in America” (Carmona, 2003). Some measures have been taken by the Council of Better Business Bureaus to make the food in child-directed advertisements healthier, thanks to The Children’s Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative.  However, this initiative only focuses on children 12 and under, while recent experiments clearly indicate that adults are affected as well (Council of Better Business Bureaus, 2012). Research such as this could eventually lead to advertising restrictions, similar to those set for tobacco, to protect public health.


Emily Denmark

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