The Psychology of 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 StyleThe 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 YoungChildren 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.Saturday morning cartoons are prime time for imprinting. Commercials regularly feature sugary cereals, potato chips and high-in-fat fast foods. The cute or cool corporate mascots make the products memorable, and create a strong brand preference that often lasts throughout a lifetime. “Research has proven that, once these brand preferences are established, they are very hard to un-do,” says Jennifer Harris, Ph.D., MBA, Director of Marketing Initiatives at Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity.Brand loyalty can begin as early as age 2—the age where children begin to recognize and develop a liking for familiar characters and can identify products in grocery aisles and request them by name.Enter “pester power,” a term that refers to children’s ability to nag their parents to buy advertised products. The food industry exploits this power with tactics like placing kid-friendly junk food items on lower store shelves, where little eyes can’t miss them. It’s no accident that your child is constantly grabbing sweets and snacks. Food companies often pay for this placement, and it’s working: Children’s influence over their parents’ purchases is estimated to be $190 billion per year.The brand imprints we gather as a child are often carried into adulthood. “The alcohol and tobacco brand you’re exposed to when younger are the ones you’re more likely to try later,” says Harris. As media theorist Douglas Rushkoff writes in his book “Coercion,” “A nine-year-old child who can recognize the Budweiser frogs and recite their slogan is more likely to start drinking beer.Is anyone trying to save the children? Yes. The National Restaurant Association has collaborated with Healthy Dining Finder to launch the Kids LiveWell program in July 201, to set healthy standards for kids’ meals. Nineteen restaurant companies, (including Burger King, Au Bon Pain, Chili’s Bar and Grill, Blimpie and Friendly’s), with 15,000 locations nationwide, are participating in the program. Each is offering and promoting kids’ menu choices that meet the 2010 U.S.D.A. Dietary Guidelines and gain approval from Healthy Dining’s team of registered dietitians.MORE: What the LiveWell Program Means for ChildrenOther restaurant chains are setting their own nutritional goals, and recieving public backlash.McDonalds, who is not yet a participant in the Kids Livewell program, recently began advertising a healthier Happy Meal. Buyers can choose between traditional French fried and soda, or healthy sliced apples and milk. But food bloggers have reported that when you go to the restaurant, they were automatically giving children a soda and French fries unless they specifically requested the healthier options. “It’s a sort of bait-and-switch,” says Harris. “It gives the company lots of great press and permission to advertise marginal products when, in reality, they are making very minor changes.”Emotional Hook and ExpectanciesMarketers want things to get emotional. Instead of simply serving you information, they want you to automatically associate their brand with positive feelings and good vibes.They accomplish this by connecting their brand to basic human motivations—like accomplishment, belonging and self-fulfillment—to encourage product sales. These motivations differ with age groups, with children’s marketing geared towards fun and happiness, teens’ towards being popular and cool (many times utilizing social media), and adults with sexy imagery or chic and relaxing places. But there’s one motivator that crosses all age groups: humor. “If you can make someone laugh and enjoy your ad it’s going to be much more effective than if you’re just giving information about your product,” says Harris.MORE: Are You Getting the Calories You Think?Some studies also suggest that an initial positive emotional response to advertising can make a product taste better. This is called the “expectancy theory” and is based on the idea that the best indication that you will actually like a product is if you expect to like the product. Case in point: In one study, Coke drinkers liked the taste of a cola beverage more when it was presented in a cup with a Coke logo as compared to a plain cup. Researchers have even shown that expectancies about the effect of an energy drink affect our physiological responses—including blood pressure, physical responsiveness, and mental acuity—even if we only thought we consumed the energy drink.Expectancies also affect children. Preschoolers liked the taste of foods and beverages more when they were presented in McDonald’s packaging, compared to the same foods in plain packaging. The effect was significantly greater for children with more television sets in their homes and children who ate at McDonald’s more often.Perceptions and the “Health Halo”Clever marketing has the power to create an image or idea of a brand, regardless of whether or not it’s true.The sandwich chain Subway promotes itself as a “healthy alternative to greasy fast food.” A study co-authored by Brian Wansink, director of the Food and Brand Lab at Cornell University, showed that consumers eating at Subway, a fast food restaurant perceived as “healthy,” believed their meals contained an average of 151 fewer calories than equally caloric meals from McDonald’s, a fast–food restaurant perceived as “unhealthy.”MORE: What’s a Health Halo? Find Out HereThe same study showed that people are more likely to indulge in sides, drinks, and desserts if their entrée is perceived as healthier (like a sandwich from Subway), than if their entrée seems less healthy (like a Big Mac from McDonald’s). These additional drinks, sides, and desserts contained up to 131 percent more calories for those eating “healthy” entrees—even though their entrees already contained 50 percent more calories than the supposedly unhealthy ones. “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.”Eat More and Super SizeWhen it comes down to it, the entire food marketing industry is based on selling us the idea that we need to “eat more,” which in turn increases their sales.Nestle believes that many of the nutritional problems facing Americans, such as obesity, can be traced to this marketing goal. “It extends beyond billboards and television commercials,” says Nestle. “The problems also include substantial increases in the sizes of food packages and restaurant portions.RESEARCH: Diet Splurges Lead to Overeating This brings about the super-size phenomenon, which lures in customers who simply cannot resist a deal.“People like bargains and the price of food is so low relative to other costs that food service places make lots of money on large portions,” says Nestle. “By this time, research shows clearly that large portions have more calories, encourage people to eat more calories, and cause people to underestimate calories more than they would with smaller portions.”

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