Dr. Emma Boyland continues her series with a look at marketing strategies by Big Food to promote overconsumption.
A drum-playing gorilla. An orange tiger saying “grrrreat!”. Even the simplicity of a jingle and “I’m loving it!”. What do all of these things have in common? They’re all television adverts that have entered our homes and our consciences in recent years. They’re also all promotions designed to persuade us to purchase and consume products high in fat or sugar or both. And therein lies the problem. We are eating too much of this stuff, and it is literally killing us. Several large scale prospective studies (the type that watches for outcomes such as disease development during the study period and then relates that outcome to suspected risk factors) have shown that overweight and obese individuals have a much greater risk of death than individuals of a healthy weight.
Another recent study also demonstrated that the current, massive, diet-related disease burden reflects a larger contribution from poor diet than tobacco, alcohol and inactivity combined. So while those other issues (smoking, drinking, and exercise) are clearly very important, we really need to get thinking about what determines why we eat the way we do, the foods we choose and the amount we consume. What can be done to make our choices better, healthier and supportive of a long healthy life? Of course, our diets have a complex set of determinants, crossing socio-economic, demographic, environmental and cultural domains.
This article will focus on one aspect of the current ‘obesogenic’ food environment - that of food marketing. It’s a contentious topic, with the food industry regularly squaring up to the public health community when restrictions are called for. Policy progress has been slow, there are few politicians in the capitalist economies of the west willing to truly take on so-called ‘Big Food’ and perhaps this is not a surprise when one considers that the fast food industry alone generates revenues of over $500 billion per year globally. That’s greater than the economic value of most countries. No wonder the Government’s recent childhood obesity ‘plan’ (downgraded from a strategy) spoke so pointedly about “economic realities” when leaving out proposals for further marketing restrictions and why efforts by four federal agencies in the US to enact better nutrition standards for foods marketed to children were scuttled in 2011 by corporate lobbyists.
But coming back to things ‘on the ground’, as I mentioned in the first article of this series, as the number and range of products on the typical supermarket shelf has risen in the last half century, so have efforts from each manufacturer to make their product stand out. Most are highly calorific, intensively processed, and have chemicals added and tweaked to ensure that the product hits the maximum sweet spot for “mouth feel” that makes us keep coming back. It has been suggested that we spend just 6 seconds deliberating over each item before we make a purchase decision, so that product has just those few seconds to convince you. How does it do that? And does marketing really affect us?
Yes it does. Studies have shown that children are able to recognise major food brand logos (such as the infamous golden arches) before they can even talk. I’ll just pause and let that sink in for a moment. Carrying on, by around 3 years of age, children are able to express specific branded product preferences (and in my experience as a parent, they are not shy at doing so!).
There’s not just one outcome of food marketing, it has affects across a broad range of behaviours, from awareness, attitudes, preferences, purchase intent, actual purchasing, and consumption. It doesn’t work in isolation of course, it must always be considered in the wider context of other individual, social and environmental influences on food choice, but it takes all the gall of a highly paid marketing executive to claim that food marketing does not contribute to food choice and, therefore, have a big part to play in obesity.
Experimental psychological research to explore just how marketing affects what we eat has been going on since the late 1970s. As with any field of study, results vary slightly depending on the sample of participants studied, the type of marketing explored, the outcome measure that was used. But time and again, large scale systematic reviews of these types of studies have concluded that food marketing affects food preferences, choices and intake. I recently conducted a meta-analysis (a fancy way of saying all the data from a load of reasonably similar studies was combined and analysed together) that showed the exposure to unhealthy food advertising, whether on the television or on the Internet (i.e. so-called ‘advergames’, games on websites that immerse children in a heavily branded environment), resulted in children eating more calories from subsequently available food than they did following exposure to non-food advertising or no advertising at all.
You all know that our kids are like little sponges. They absorb whatever is around them. But they don’t yet have the ability to question and analyze what they’re told. Instead, they believe just about everything they see and hear, especially if it’s on TV. And when the average child is now spending nearly eight hours a day in front of some kind of screen, many of their opinions and preferences are being shaped by the marketing campaigns you all create.
- Michelle Obama, White House Convention on Food Marketing to children, 2013.
Interestingly, the same effect wasn’t found for adults. But there are a lot fewer studies looking at adults (children don’t understand how marketing works, so are seen as inherently vulnerable to marketing, arguably a form of exploitation of incredulity and lack of cognitive maturity). Also, when they know their eating is being monitored by researchers, adults tend to eat a lot less than they would normally (this too has been demonstrated experimentally). Adults also tend to be better at guessing the true aims of studies, and therefore adjusting their behaviour according to what they believe the researcher wants to find (social desirability bias). So it is probably worth taking these few adult studies with (sorry, terrible food-related pun coming up) a ‘pinch of salt’ for now until a greater body of work has been conducted.
The food marketers really target their efforts at children, anyway. Children have independent spending money - the guilt of the greater proportion of working parents means pocket money is rising at over 20 times the rate of inflation. They have influence over family spending (the bill for the family shop rises by around £5 when a child is taken to the supermarket) and they are adult consumers of the future. Gaining brand loyalty in childhood could result in a lifetime of sales, and that’s the grab the food industry really wants.
So we see children targeted in increasingly imaginative, and frankly, frightening ways. We all know about TV advertising. We all know about billboards, about sports sponsorship and about the ads at the start of a film at the cinema. But are we all aware that food companies are tracking young people online? Every action on social media, for example, every website visited, every device and network used, every geo-location picked up, every personal preference, ‘like’ and social activity is used to build up an online behavioural profile and those data (even when related to child users) are routinely being sold for the purposes of refining personalised advertising, advertising that has the biggest impact on the target demographic. Even the recent Pokemon Go craze has been seized upon as an opportunity to market to young people - McDonalds in Japan teamed up with the makers of the app to ensure that their restaurants were made into key game locations.
The food industry has been named and shamed for their marketing activity before. Their reaction? To continue to market their fatty, sugary, salty foods but alongside a raft of low fat, diet, low-carb, sugar-free ‘healthy’ processed foods! Marketed to the very people made overweight by the former, who are now desperate to lose weight using the latter. So they make even more money from obesity, by generating the ‘diet industry’. Their other response is to espouse the notion of personal responsibility. Any talk of marketing restriction is met with calls of ‘nanny state’ and claims that this would be depriving the consumer of their right to free choice. But true choice is a fallacy when the food environment has such power over what, how, when and how much we eat. This was alluded to by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, back in September 2011, when he said:
It is unacceptable that when lives are at stake, we go no further than soft, promotional measures that ultimately rely on consumer choice, without addressing the supply side of the food chain. [...] Food advertising is proven to have a strong impact on children, and must be strictly regulated in order to avoid the development of bad eating habits early in life.
And while we are busy with quotes, I think the best way to wrap up this article in the series is by handing over to the WHO Director General, Margaret Chan and the comments she made in her opening address at the 8th Global Conference on Health Promotion in Finland, June 2013: