There’s the Lay’s commercial with joyous young people munching on crispy potato chips that played during the morning news, the billboard of the buff athlete offering you a refreshing sip of Gatorade that you drove past on your way to work and the magazine ad of a healthy, happy family sitting down to share a meal of Stouffer’s lasagna that you flipped by while waiting for your doctor’s appointment.
It’s no surprise that we’re exposed to nearly 3,000 marketing messages daily. And even though we’re all too familiar with the art of being sold something—people try to sell us their products, we take that information for what it’s worth and then we make an informed decision—the “sell” isn’t always so blatantly obvious. If you think you’re picking up everything those clever marketers are putting down, think again: Research shows that the images and associations these ads form within our minds eye are much more powerful than we realize.
What’s the Deal?
“Any advertiser will tell you that successful marketing appeals to emotions and slips below the radar of critical thinking,” says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., the author of the groundbreaking book, “Food Politics.” “We are not supposed to notice advertising and we don’t—unless we deliberately set out to look for it.”
Marketers want you to automatically associate their brand with feeling good. They do this by linking their brand to basic human motivations—like accomplishment, belonging, self-fulfillment—to boost product sales.
What’s more, marketing has the power to create a positive image of a brand—even if that image is false. Take for example Subway, which promotes itself as a "healthy alternative to greasy fast food." Studies by Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, show that consumers eating at a fast food restaurant perceived as "healthy,” like Subway, were more likely to underestimate their calorie intake by an average of 151 calories than if the consumers were eating at a fast–food restaurant perceived as "unhealthy,” like McDonald's.
Also, research has shown that people are more likely to indulge in sides, drinks and desserts if their entrée was perceived to be healthier (like a sandwich from Subway) than if their entrée was less healthy (like a Big Mac from McDonald's). And those additional drinks, sides and desserts added up to 131 percent more calories consumed. “It’s a ‘health halo’, where we assume everything on the menu at a restaurant is good for us,” says Wansink. “If people eating at Subway think they’ve earned some kind of calorie credit, it can lead to substantial weight gain.”
Another example of the “health halo” is Vitamin Water. Many people view it as a healthy alternative to soda—the very name suggesting the product is simply water with added nutrients. “It’s great marketing, but its really just sugar water,” says Jennifer Harris, Director of Marketing Initiatives at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity. “People don’t realize it and think it’s better than drinking water when, in reality, there’s no evidence that people actually even need any of the vitamin additives.” When a non-profit public interest group sued the company on the grounds of making unwarranted health claims, they defended themselves by stating "no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitamin Water was a healthy beverage."
The irony of this statement has not been lost on the public. Many are outraged that a company that’s invested billions of dollars in heavily and aggressively promoting their product as a healthy choice—paying basketball stars to appear in ads that convey the beverage as a healthy way to hydrate—could turn around and essentially call their consumers stupid for believing Vitamin Water is a healthy choice.
How to Help Yourself
So can you actually protect yourself against these powerful marketing messages, especially ones that reach us on a subconscious level?
Yes, but it’s no easy task. Harris points out that more research is needed to examine the psychological aspect of food marketing to identify public policy that will effectively protect from harmful influence. In the meantime, simply being aware of the influence that ads have on us and flexing our skepticism muscle, rather than mindlessly absorbing the information marketers are shelling out, can help people make better food choices.
Or try Nestle’s tactic: “Turn off the TV. Pay attention. And don’t have junk food in the house.”
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