Marketing and Food Choices: The Role of Advertisements on our Eating Decisions

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What role can and does marketing play in food choices?

The two articles I selected show different ways that food marketing can unconsciously effect people’s food choices and consumption. My first slide shows they way food advertising distorts people’s perception of “healthy” alternatives offered at fast food restaurants. The advertised foods are obviously more palatable, and offer subtle healthy option cues, such as larger proportions of lettuce and tomatoes on the sandwiches and salads and less cheese. These are ways that advertising harnesses to automatic cues in the environment—cues of quality—that we had discussed the previous week.

The first article, Priming Effects of TV food Advertising on Eating Behavior, discusses how TV advertisements directed towards children increase consumption of snacking for both children and adults. Food advertisements towards children promote feelings of being “cool, fun, and happy.” Another interesting fact this article raised was that 98 percent of food advertisements that children were exposed to were for unhealthy snack options, and illustrated unhealthy eating behaviors.

Harris, Bargh, and Brownell (2009) used food advertisements as real world primes for both children and adults to trigger automatic snacking. They found that:(1) children consumed 45 percent more when exposed to food advertisements (2) adults consumed more of both healthy and unhealthy snack foods after exposure to food advertisement and (3) food advertisements are a powerful prime beyond just brand preferences. Thus, there is an interesting connection between food advertising from McDonalds and their argument that children have a choice to eat or not to eat their products. This article’s results argue that the mere exposure to unhealthy snacks primes overconsumption of snacks in other areas—such as the consumption of snacks while watching TV.

The last slides for this article included an attached You tube video featuring a children’s healthy foods song. The video sings a song that “Carrots are cool.  I like carrots.  I don’t like candy” type of message. Can we utilize the principles that fast-food companies employ in their advertising to promote healthy eating? In other words, is it possible to use advertising as a real-world prime to healthy eating behavior?

The second article, Paradoxical Effect of Dietary Commercials on Reinhibition of Dietary Restraint , illustrates another interesting finding on the ways marketing influences our food choices—but more specifically, dieter’s consumption.

Strauss, Doyle, and Kriepe (1994) predicted that presenting restrained eaters with a model of a successful dieter to interrupt a period of dietary disinhibition would re-inhibit their eating behavior. The study differed from past research.  Instead of presenting a model before presenting snack items, they interrupted disinhibited eating with commercial advertisements of slender women undergoing successful diets. The researchers hypothesized that restrained participants exposed to diet-oriented ads would eat less (or be reinhibited). Instead, their results revealed the opposite!  They found that highly restrained participants who viewed the diet-oriented clip ate nearly twice as much as any other group; they essentially binged, suggesting that the ads served as “painful feedback” that the restrained eaters had broken their diet – and the body image presented was currently unattainable.

This raises questions to public policy messages that promote dieting and healthy behavior changes—as discussed in the debate. It seems that the timing of exposure is a significant mediator to whether restrained eaters follow or reject the message. On one hand, the messages presented before a possible “diet-binge” has positive benefits to realign people with their goals. On the other hand, exposure to such visual cues during a “diet-binge” actually increases consumption. Considering the fact that almost all dieters experience periodic episodes of restraint and disinhibition, these studies could have significant impacts on public policy efforts to promote successful dieting messages.

The most important question that these articles raise is “can we defend ourselves against the effects of advertising?” Harris, Bargh, and Brownell (2009) suggest that education and awareness of the unwanted external influences and how they affect us may increase people’s defense against effects. They make one suggestion of better media literacy programs that teach how to analyze and understand advertising and how advertising affects people outside of their awareness. This is a good alternative strategy for public policy to employ, rather than strictly relying on “eat less, eat healthy” message. Another interesting suggestion would be to limit the number of food advertisements shown during “prime time hours,” due to the fact that people, and especially adult female restrained eaters, are under the most ego depletion and cognitive load at these times and therefore more vulnerable to effects of the messages.


Harris, J. L., Bargh, J. A., & Brownell, K. D. (2009). Priming effects of television food advertising on eating behavior . Health Psychology , 28(4), 404-413 .

Strauss, J., Doyle, A. E., & Kreipe, R. E. (1994 ). The paradoxical effect of diet commercials on reinhibition of dietary restraint . Journal of Abnormal Psychology , 103(3), 441-444.


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