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The Psychology of Food Advertising

The food industry spends 11 billion annually to ensure we’re putting our money where our mouth is. Here’s how to see through the smoke and mirrors.

| August 29th, 2011
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Food Advertising

You watch them—the beautiful people, frolicking in a soda-bottle-shaped boat. The sun shines, the water sparkles, as scantily clad, perfectly-toned bodies dance to catchy pop tunes urging you to “open up some happiness.”

You’re watching a commercial, but in spite of yourself, you feel a little warm and fuzzy. You even crack a smile, conjuring up that crazy Spring Break from years ago.

That’s exactly how Coca-Cola, the company behind this commercial, wants you to feel. You’ve formed an emotional attachment with their brand. The next time you’re sipping a cola drink, you’ll think of that commercial, the positive reward centers in your brain will light up, and you’ll feel great.

But you probably won’t guess that it has anything to do with images of hot strangers dancing in an oversized soda bottle. Effective marketing makes us think our reactions are completely rational: People try to sell us their products, we take that information for what its worth, and then we make an informed decision. (We’re no fools.)

QUIZ: Easily Influenced? Find Out Your Eating Style

The research tells a different story. The images and associations these ads form within our mind's eye are much more powerful than we think, many of them containing subtle psychological features that people don’t understand or believe.

“Any advertiser will tell you that successful marketing appeals to emotions and slips below the radar of critical thinking,” says Marion Nestle, Ph.D., MPH, the author of “Food Politics.” “We are not supposed to notice advertising and we don’t—unless we deliberately set out to look for it.”

Get ‘Em While They’re Young

Children are most receptive to marketing messages—their minds are like sponges, ready to soak up all information they receive. Marketers use this vulnerable time to develop “brand imprinting”—a term psychologists use to describe the process of encoding a particular brand in our brain’s memory network through repeated brand name exposure.

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