Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
10 Apr

Yes, We’re All Susceptible to Food Advertising

thumbnail 1We in the Primal community often consider ourselves somewhat countercultural. (Okay, some of us maybe more than somewhat…) We eat what conventional wisdom says will kill us. We avoid or minimize our intake of whole food groups (mostly one really). In fact, we generally decline much of what the rest of society eats for its three square meals every day. Speaking of food frequency, we do strange fasting practices with no apparent religious intent. We’re just strange like that. Some of us work out at odd hole in the wall gyms with empty spaces instead of steppers and Nautilus machines. We go barefoot. We sit or sleep on the ground. We climb trees. And then there’s the caveman thing…. It’s enough to make ordinary folk shake their heads in abject consternation. With all of our, em, idiosyncratic choices, over time we can believe we’ve extricated ourselves from the cultural forces that would have us live otherwise. After all, it takes legitimate discipline to resist the expectations, routines and provisions that surround us every day. In the interest of said discipline, I think many of us insulate ourselves (or our kids) from at least some traditional marketing sources. Maybe it’s the sheer annoyance factor that initially motivates us. (Who hasn’t wanted to strangle the Trix rabbit?) Maybe it’s the desire to focus our kids’ early exposure on naturally occurring food that needs no cartoon mascot. Either way, I think we do ourselves a service. While we may be highly conscious consumers, we’re still highly human (and thereby susceptible) observers of marketing’s cunning messages.

Researchers have long noted the dramatic impact of advertising on emotion and behavior. The most cited studies have assessed the influence of food marketing on children, and researchers concur that kids are indeed more vulnerable to the messages they view. (What associations were established in your childhood by commercials and other marketing messages?) One Australian research review suggests children view approximately 5000 food advertisements a year (PDF). Add to this the intuitive finding that commercial viewing significantly impacts food requests, snacking behavior and food consumption. Ring true for any parents out there?

This said, plenty of research demonstrates adults are anything but immune. Our opinion of foods, researchers have found, is significantly influenced by our perception of other peoples’ experience of it. If they like it, we’re more likely to think we’ll like it. This principle doesn’t just hold for restaurant reviews around the water cooler on Friday afternoon. Advertisements create social stories. We see people enjoying or benefiting from a particular food product, and that message directly translates to our Paleolithic instincts. Look at those people and how much fun they’re having eating that endless pasta bowl. It must be good. The social association gets even more specialized in our experience of advertising. Whereas kids gravitate to cartoon figures (or sports figures), for example, we’re apparently suckers for celebrity endorsements (PDF). When you consider than food advertising focuses almost 75% of the time on fast food, sweets and cereal, it’s clear we have little to nothing positive to gain from the presence of advertising.

And lest we think that our dietary discipline mutes the effects of food marketing, it’s important to note that research demonstrates the even more pronounced impact of food advertisements on those who are dieting. While it’s safe to argue that a person who’s unnaturally restricting calories is operating from a different vantage point than one who has adequate caloric intake but more strategic macronutrient balance, the idea of restriction can hold sway in us each differently. Even if most of the time you feel fully satisfied eating Primally, something as simple as a bad mood or recent, however brief, temptation can spur the sense of restriction that opens the door for these advertisements’ tactics.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not too into television beyond some no commercial cable series. For the couple I watch that would have me sit through commercial breaks, I buy them or wait until they’re on a service that allows me to watch them commercial free. Mostly, I do this for time. It drives me up the wall to sit through ads. On the few occasions, however, that I find myself in front of regular T.V., I’m astounded by the marketing power that gets unleashed within a 5 minute network window. Sometimes it’s snacks marketed to children. Other times it’s fast food or sit-down restaurant chains. Sometimes it’s boxed “dinners,” frozen meals, sodas and energy drinks, candy, condiments, you name it.

Yes, I know and we all know just how much garbage exists out there in the food industry. Still, there’s a very dramatic difference between walking down the aisles of a regular grocery store where the packages sit inert (despite the sometimes screaming graphics) and viewing these products highlighted in strategic mini-movies, associated with ease, luxury, love, happiness, adventure, sex and family. All the aggrandizing and playing upon human emotion and desire is startling when you’ve taken a break from it. Sure, I admire the skill and artistry that goes into crafting such ads, but I’m simultaneously repelled in many cases. Going back to that grocery store either literally or imaginatively, the aisles and their product displays don’t seem so quiet and objective anymore. Advertising is cumulative and achieves its apex in layers of interaction. Shopping under the influence of advertising raises a cacophony of commercial recall and psychological manipulation.

Whether it’s a highway billboard, a magazine ad or a T.V. commercial, the effect is generally the same. We’re made to feel something in connection with a product. We’re led to associate the brand with an essential experience or empathetic figure or desirable attribute. Advertising doesn’t tell us what we want as much as who we want to be and then convinces us that their product imparts something of that experience – whether it’s the distinction of a “luxury” car or the romantic luxury of Dove chocolate. Whether or not we buy the product, we buy the association much more often than most of us realize or care to admit.

The association of course is the gateway. It creates a feeling and identity around the product all in the name of branding. Whether it’s Mountain Dew hijinks or green-washed “natural” processed food, we are drawn in by the identity. That’s where our perception of a product gets foggy. We can reject a bag of Doritos passed our way, but when given the choice between Doritos and a bag of generic tortilla chips, which is the harder to say no to? That gap is where the marketing magic takes over.

Forget tortilla chips for a minute and imagine you’ve just walked into a Whole Foods or even a large, well-appointed co-op store. Make your way down the aisles. Are you more likely to come away with unplanned purchases than you would’ve at a conventional grocery store? Why is that? Like many of us, I imagine, do you unconsciously associate everything in the store with a higher caliber of food and a healthier selection? That’s the store’s branding at work. Even if it’s a neighborhood co-op, you go in for pastured chicken and leeks and end up with nut butter pretzels in the bag as well. Somehow it’s easier to justify when we imagine that the co-op sells us healthier food.

There are a million examples any one of us could share (and please do feel free on the comment board), but the take home is a simple reflection really. We can eschew traditional food choices and the sources that market them. Yet, our brains still operate the same. We can celebrate the choices Grok made in his day and setting. Put him in ours, and we’d be looking at a very different story. I think we can and should acknowledge the natural inclination to be drawn to what commercials tell us we should like. The Mad Men of this day and age, after all, have even more psychological and demographic firepower at their disposal. While surrounding ourselves with community and reading/viewing material that supports our choices certainly spares us a lot of mental static, I don’t think it’s necessary (or particularly realistic) to remain in hypervigilant mode at all times. Whereas hypervigilance gets old, maybe humor offers a better answer and a more enjoyable defense. What say you?

Thanks for reading, everyone. What advertisements are you exposed to in a day? What reactions do they elicit in you? What do you think is the best defense against their influence? I hope you’ll share your thoughts and stories. Have a great weekend.

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. Processed food is engineered in labs to increase consumption. Read an eye opening book by Michael Moss – called Salt Sugar Fat – and you’ll know what I’m talking about.

    Processed foods hit just the right pleasure centers in our brains. (Watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71j8TPwkTQE). The purpose of advertising is to remind us of that pleasure so we keep filling their bank accounts. This formula works (just look at the financial statements of food companies) because many people are subconscious eaters.

    Hassan wrote on April 10th, 2014
  2. Good news. What ad is more persuasive than the face of a little Girl Scout asking if you want to buy cookies? I told her I don’t eat flour or sugar, but if they come up with something healthier to sell, I’d buy it. The adult scout leader standing there said, “They’re working on it.” So there’s that to look forward to.

    Becky wrote on April 10th, 2014
  3. I hear ya. I do tend to buy strange things from the health food store… although I always read the lables. Got to read the labels.

    The commercials that really move me, though, aren’t for health washed junk. That stuff raises my blood pressure. No, it’s the commercials for the flat out BAD stuff that make me want to get one. Like that new commercial for McDonald’s fillet o’fish burger or the Dairy Queen’s blizzard in a waffle cone. Damn, I love Blizzards…

    Wildrose wrote on April 10th, 2014
  4. The unending avalanche of food advertisements definitely sucks but what really gets me are the commercials/ads/billboards for prescription drugs. I can’t stand listening to some announcer go on about how this or that pill is going to magically cure your disease – especially when it’s immediately followed up with a huge list of side effects. This pill might help your arthritis but it will also eat your liver, make you cough up your lungs, and then kill you. Um yay?

    Marie wrote on April 10th, 2014
  5. I am reading a book about advertising and subliminal messages as we speak…
    I used to fall for the “10 for 10″ deals but now see the evill in it all! I have felt so good since going primal in Jan of this year that oreos, doritos and (fill in your weakness here) can go some place…keep up the good work fellow apples :)

    christa wrote on April 10th, 2014
  6. I remember drooling over the tv when food ads would come on, but that was before I changed my diet. It now makes me sick to see and smell greasy junk food.

    Angel wrote on April 10th, 2014
  7. For me the choice is pretty easy. If my food comes from a box or packet, it will get me back to fatness and poor health.

    So it’s a no. Just like that.

    I much rather have fruit and beef.

    Great post, Mark!

    Morex wrote on April 10th, 2014
  8. I’m always astounded by advertisements in magazines…one page is for chocolate covered granola bars, or some “healthy” jello snack; the next page is “Ask your doctor if Ritalin is right for your child.”

    Tracy wrote on April 10th, 2014
  9. I know commercials affect me….and I agree about the drug ads. They are the worst. There was a particular ad for a depression medication that would practically have me in tears every time I saw it due to the sad music, sad people, and sad pets! I try to be mindful about them and see them for what they are….it’s just about companies wanting your money. Too bad so much energy and money gets put into ad development when it could be used for something better.

    JG wrote on April 10th, 2014
  10. I’m only a few months into the Primal lifestyle, somehow I find it easy to resist all the crappy food that I used to think I enjoyed. If I’m forced to watch food commercials I just note all the products that I will never purchase again, it’s very liberating!

    The Stoneman wrote on April 10th, 2014
  11. Love Whole Foods. Probably because I don’t live near one, or a Trader Joe’s. So it’s a novelty thing for me. There is a WF 10 minutes from my sister’s house, and whenever I visit her, that’s my thing. Let’s go to WF! Mostly I focus on meats, cheeses, and wine. Mark didn’t mention this, but WF has SAMPLES. Of CHEESES. That will cause me to throw list and “budget” (yeah, right) out the window. My husband cringes because he knows I’m going to spend too much money. My sister is happy because we’re going to eat well!

    Sialia wrote on April 10th, 2014
  12. “Ask your doctor if it’s right for you”……shouldn’t my doctor KNOW without being asked?

    skeedaddy wrote on April 10th, 2014
  13. This is why I gave up TV when I moved out of my parents’ house, way back when. Haven’t had one since. Don’t intend to get one. Oh, I catch the occasional show on Netflix, but I always mute the commercials and turn away while they’re running.

    The reason I originally gave up commercials was because I’m a composer, and the jingles were finding their way into the music I was writing. Even though I had no intention of ever buying the stuff being advertised, I was still affected in a fairly significant way. I wanted to keep my subconscious clear of all that garbage. Commercials are a form of brainwashing.

    meepster wrote on April 10th, 2014
  14. Also, the frequency at which some ads are run on TV is a huge turn off. When I visit my family and watch TV, the exact same ads appear during the commercial breaks over and over again! So annoying. The best solution I have for that is to pre-record shows and fast forward all this nonsense during replay.

    Anna wrote on April 11th, 2014
  15. I find it easy to avoid temptation by sticking to outer isles in the shops. There is rarely any ad on TV for salad or tomatoes and if it’s for meat, it’s usually steak or cheap chicken that’s from a butcher or something instead of being produced by some mega company.
    Since I became paleo I am not looking to replace unhealthy desserts with “healthy” alternatives that mimic the taste of the unhealthy one. I simply don’t feel the need to snack or have desserts ( why would one want more food after eating a meal? ).

    It’s a bit like vegans trying desperately to replace burgers and chicken with processed “vegan” crap that tastes and looks as much as the very food they don’t want to eat ( think quorn stakes/sausages/burgers/”chicken pieces” )

    In general I try to shop online as much as possible. I type in “organic” or “grass-fed” and get loads of alternatives, different brands, some I’ve never even heard of. I compare the ingredients, look out for chemicals I want to avoid ( like in shower gels or toothpaste ) and make my choice, click “order” and I’m done.
    No impulse purchases, no temptation to get this or that brand. Simples.

    Jacob wrote on April 11th, 2014
  16. My husband is so susceptible to advertising that he will see a commercial for a Snickers bar, get on his coat, grab his keys and go to the store to buy one (plus whatever else catches his eye while he is out there).

    I find that when we zip through the commercials on the DVR, even though we are zipping through at 4x, the commercials still register. It’s insidious.

    Thanks for the reminder, Mark, that we can be susceptible to advertising no matter how much we embrace and enjoy the primal/paleo lifestyle. I cannot imagine eating any other way now, but I do find myself wishing for a sweet delicious Cosmo martini every now and again when they show up on a commercial (Skinny Girl, ChiChi’s, etc)…

    PS) one of the games we play in this house with our sons is “product placement” – we are GOOD at picking off every product placement in every tv show, movie and Netflix original series…

    Sharon Mac wrote on April 11th, 2014
  17. We are going to see more so-called paleo items being advertised. I am getting ready for a overseas trip, and was intrigued to see a “paleo bar” listed in my co-op. Fortunately, I checked the product’s website and found it includes cane sugar – now how is that paleo?

    I really love walking into grocery stores and feeling utterly immune to the processed products they promote so heavily! I just head to the produce aisle!

    Elizabeth wrote on April 11th, 2014
  18. I baked paleo muffins, they taste really good, I know they are healthier, but they are still sitting in the fridge after two weeks. It must be the sugar cravings we have that keeps up eating the bad stuff.

    Shirley wrote on April 11th, 2014
  19. I have a sudden urge for M&Ms. I don’t even like them. At least they won’t melt in my hands.

    Trent wrote on April 11th, 2014
  20. I can’t remember what movie I got this quote from, but a photographer was talking about the magazine advertising business. “Every ad makes a promise, and if the photograph is any good, the promise is always broken.”

    I try to keep that in mind anytime I see an ad for anything, but especially if it seems to be targeted to a paleo-whole-food-farm-to-table mindset. Just because they know the buzzwords to get a target demographic’s attention doesn’t mean it isn’t the same crap that’s advertised differently somewhere else.

    Susan wrote on April 11th, 2014
  21. It’s always bugged me, that Google has a motto of “Do No Evil”, yet they still work so hard at plastering advertisements over every publicly available information source. I mean, who asked for Trix?, except advertisers. It’s not so much free choice, as privately guided and advertisement driven choice. You can avoid it, but you must choose to do so.

    You can choose.

    Terry P wrote on April 11th, 2014
  22. One truth, for our life in America, is that not only can you choose, but so can the advertisers. We can ask for unprocessed foods, if possible grown locally. And we can make our preferences public. If enough people do then the products will be there.

    Meanwhile, patronize you local farmers market.

    Terry P wrote on April 11th, 2014
  23. I’m pretty good about the processed stuff, and avoid eating what I don’t prepare for myself. When I do find myself “craving” something, I review my last 48 hours. Did I lift more than usual? Get more cardio than normal? Was my sleep choppy? Stress? Am I getting enough fat and carbs?

    This reflection helps me to adjust my diet so I don’t crave things my body’s lacking making it effortless to pass on the new bag of goldfish crackers. Most processed food contains sugar [chemicals, lab fats, excessive salt] so I visualize cancer. Cancer feeds on sugar (there was a study done on this in Australia). I’d be lying to say the bad stuff doesn’t creep into my diet, but when it does, I make a conscious effort to embrace how crappy I feel. 100% of the time, it wasn’t worth it.

    GREAT article Mark! You’re so spot on about advertising AND annoying commercials–the #2 reason I dread Christmas every year, lol.

    coolnads wrote on April 12th, 2014
  24. Yeah, I like to stay out of touch, even with websites, that’s why my comment is a week late and will be read by no one, but just in case:

    There’s an important point I think this article doesn’t make which is… a huge majority of “grocery” items stocked by co-ops (most of the time these are the ones along the inner aisles- perimeter shopping is always better) are produced by the s a m e *imprecating expletive* companies that bring you such fine offerings as line the Brightly Colored Sugar Box aisle, the Zesty Nostalgic Corn Syrup Condiment Aisle, the GMO Carb-wealthy Fluffy Fructose Starch (bread) aisle, I could go on.

    They just put them in a more dull format with soy ink on recycled cardboard, and it looks oh-so-healthy… Don’t like Trix? How about Mountain Valley Forest Soy Nugget Extruded Grain Flakes? In a very brown and green package! MMM.

    Same company, they still know you and how to separate you from your money… and your health.

    PMH wrote on April 17th, 2014
  25. I saw this commercial the other day and it made me legitimately mad:

    Mazola Oil vs Olive Oil
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IUZr8VRJ7XA

    The sad thing is as long as it seems like they have some sort of health claim to back up the b.s. they’re selling, someone will fall for it.

    I watch tv commercials and it makes me upset. I worry about those that fall for the marketing when I listen to the drug prescription side effects on pharma commercials and hearing about the latest fast food nightmare food.

    This article has been posted before, but I think it’s mind blowing to see the science behind mass food production (if you haven’t read this, read it):

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/24/magazine/the-extraordinary-science-of-junk-food.html?pagewanted=2&_r=0

    Knowledge is Power!!!! Especially in regards to your health!

    Emily wrote on April 17th, 2014
  26. We don’t have a TV. Don’t have time. My kids have never had one. We don’t use the radio in the car except to listen to the phone or the occasional podcast; we talk with each other instead. We run ad blockers on all our computers and phones so the only ads we see are billboards and buses. My kids like to look for hidden messages and symbols in them so they’re more of a fun puzzle project than anything they’d be swayed by. They have never eaten food with a cartoon on it.

    The result of all my ‘insulating’? My kids are savvy consumers, they read labels, they raise and prepare most of their own food, are solid athletes and are rarely sick. They can give you a lecture about what ranching practices raise or diminish levels of conjugated linoleic acid or A1 vs A2 casein or the evils of glyphosate. Yeah, we’re complete weirdos because we can’t name a single Laker or Dodger, but my kids do know Denise Minger, Mark Sisson, Chris Kresser and Robb Wolf. We’re a happy and healthy family who play and live together, mostly outdoors, and that’s what really matters.

    Kill your TV. After the initial withdrawal period your life will be richer, you’ll have more time for the people around you, you’ll have less stress and anxiety and you’ll have more money. But be prepared to be weird. Not like the others. But hey, you probably already run around barefoot and avoid pizza and beer so you’re probably already most of the way down the path anyway.

    Greg wrote on April 22nd, 2014
  27. As someone who enjoys studying people I actually find advertisements quite fascinating constructs. They are designed with every semiotic and information design trick in the book to work with the human psyche to associate specific brands with some sort of vague, existential concept that is often completely and entirely besides the point (well…the point of the product anyways; the point of a corporation attempting to maintain a loyal consumer base by abusing human cognition is being fulfilled with aplomb).

    For anyone who is interested further I suggest starting at http://cogsci.uwaterloo.ca/courses/phil256.html for a look into Cognitive Sciences and then move forward into general theories of advertisement, information and ESPECIALLY semiotics. The world becomes a much more intriguingly slanted place once you start to unmask the layers of semiotics.

    Somnolence wrote on April 22nd, 2014
  28. I don’t watch much commercial TV in the UK, so don’t have to suffer constant commercial breaks which annoy me when they happen in the middle of a good film etc. If I need to buy a different food which I haven’t bought before, I always read the labels to decide which brand to buy. This has been neccessary for a long time now as I’m a Coeliac and I choose the brand that is suitable for my diet. I’m sure I’m as affected by advertising as the next person, I just have more exact parameters to guide me.

    Diana wrote on April 24th, 2014
  29. I realise I am adding to an older post – but this in the UK news today – interesting language I thought e.g. “A lot of people are trying to demonise sugar”

    http://www.businessinsider.com/weightwatchers-is-actually-keeping-people-fat-2014-5

    Nicola Thomas wrote on June 20th, 2014
  30. Personally, being a student of psychology, I consider myself quite immune to advertising as I understand the mechanisms, tactics, and tools marketeers and advertisers use, some with better and some with worse efficiency.

    So far only Old Spice has been able to advertise effectively to me, so my hats of to them (I’m not getting paid by them, they just have really effective commercials :D)

    What would be really optimal is – more Paleo brands opening up with effective PR teams that could advertise paleo eating to the general population in a advertisable manner, in order to increase healthier eating patterns that we have been promoting in the paleo community thus far.

    Sebastijan Veselic wrote on April 13th, 2014

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