We 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.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.