When's the last time you saw an unappealing or unhappy commercial advertising food? The answer is probably never. According to recent studies, both children and adults are more prone to munch while watching television with advertisements that relate snacking and fun.
Jennifer L. Harris, John A. Bargh, and Kelly D. Brownell, researchers at Yale University, conducted a study called "Priming Effects of Television Food Advertising on Eating Behavior," published in Health Psychology (2009, vol.#28, no.4, 404-413), in order to examine the correlation of television advertisements for food and the obesity epidemic. They found that children ate 45% more when they saw commercials of food, and that adults ate more overall.
The correlation that the researchers found comes as no surprise when looking at what the television shows. Of the average 15 advertisements kids see on tv, a whopping 98 percent of them portray foods that are high in fats, trans fats, sugar, and sodium. Why? Because food that does not offer nutrition, offers taste; our brains have been primed to crave the unhealthy foods over the ones that offer us nutritional benefits. The way our minds are built causes us to unconsciously absorb messages that trigger feelings, actions, or both, as in this situation.
The children in the study were broken up into two categories, one watching a show with food ads and one without. Both groups were given a bowl of cheddar cheese goldfish crackers and water as a snack. To little surprise, the researchers found that the kids watching tv with food ads ate a great deal more of their snack while watching. With the extra snacking that went on during the program, children are at risk for gaining almost ten extra pounds a year for watching only 30 minutes of television per day.
Harris, Bargh, and Brownell went on to examine the impact on adults as well. While their conditions were different, the findings were parallel to those in the children. The adults watched a condensed episode of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" and then asked to taste and rate a variety of food based on nutritional value and flavor. As expected, participants ranked cookies and snack mix very unhealthy, vegetables very healthy, and the trail-mix and multi-grain chips in between. They also indicated that the best tasting foods were vegetables and cookies and the least tasty to be the multi-grain chips. They ate vegetables the most, then cookies, trail mix, snack mix, and lastly the multi-grain chips. Adults eat more while watching television, regardless of whether or not the food is healthy. It is all about what is around them and easy to get. Due to this, the findings are unable to pinpoint the exact features of the ads which increase automatic eating behaviors. There may be multiple aspects which viewers see that are working at the same time in order to achieve its goal: making viewers snack, even if they are not hungry.
Think about the Super Bowl. How many of the commercials during the game time advertise food? And then, take into account the half-time commercials. People live for the half-time commercials. Doritos has its own entire competition for the best commercials that will be aired during the Super Bowl, and this event only happens once a year. What else comes to mind when thinking of this huge game? Americans wait all year long to throw their biggest party of the year, inviting their friends, family, friends of family, and more. With each guest comes a dish of food. For an average of four hours, people across the nation, and the world, are engaged in advertisements, with food all around them. This research found "...evidence of an automatic, direct causal link between food advertising and greater snack consumption," and despite what food industries say, "further contradict...that advertising affects only brand preferences and not overall nutrition (Young, 2003)."
Unhealthy food is more readily available nowadays than ever before. On nearly every corner there is a Starbucks or McDonald's -- or either. The aisles of the grocery stores are stocked full of chips, cookies, crackers, and sodas. The snack section of grocery stores take up substantially more space than that of the produce section. Not to mention, the pricing of the different types of the food vary in substantial amounts. Healthier food is harder to find, harder to prep, and more expensive. Goldfish and chips are a great deal easier to feed to pour on the table in front of your child than cutting up fruits and vegetables. We are all always going at four thousand miles per hour, but we have to eat. The dining room has, in many homes, moved into the living room, in front of the television. Eating and television go hand in hand, and we are seeing the consequences.
Harris, Bargh, and Brownell advise that parents and educators gain a better understanding of how priming works in order to protect themselves and children against the unconscious eating. It is important to be aware of the affects of the sneaky advertisement strategies of the companies who are trying to make you eat. So next time you are in front of the telly, if you have just eaten, think: am I hungry or is the media making me want to eat?