Objective: Health advocates have focused on the prevalence of advertising for calorie-dense low-nutrient foods as a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic. This research tests the hypothesis that exposure to food advertising during TV viewing may also contribute to obesity by triggering automatic snacking of available food.
Design: In Experiments 1a and 1b, elementary-school-age children watched a cartoon that contained either food advertising or advertising for other products and received a snack while watching. In Experiment 2, adults watched a TV program that included food advertising that promoted snacking and/or fun product benefits, food advertising that promoted nutrition benefits, or no food advertising. The adults then tasted and evaluated a range of healthy to unhealthy snack foods in an apparently separate experiment.
Main outcome measures: Amount of snack foods consumed during and after advertising exposure.
Results: Children consumed 45% more when exposed to food advertising. Adults consumed more of both healthy and unhealthy snack foods following exposure to snack food advertising compared to the other conditions. In both experiments, food advertising increased consumption of products not in the presented advertisements, and these effects were not related to reported hunger or other conscious influences.
Conclusion: These experiments demonstrate the power of food advertising to prime automatic eating behaviors and thus influence far more than brand preference alone.