Background: Advertising has been implicated in the declining quality of the American diet, but much of the research has been conducted with children rather than adults. This study tested the effects of televised food advertising on adult food choice.
Methods: Participants (N = 351) were randomized into one of 4 experimental conditions: exposure to food advertising vs. exposure to non-food advertising, and within each of these groups, exposure to a task that was either cognitively demanding or not cognitively demanding. The number of unhealthy snacks chosen was subsequently measured, along with total calories of the snacks chosen.
Results: Those exposed to food advertising chose 28% more unhealthy snacks than those exposed to non-food-advertising (95% CI: 7% - 53%), with a total caloric value that was 65 kcal higher (95% CI: 10-121). The effect of advertising was not significant among those assigned to the low-cognitive-load group, but was large and significant among those assigned to the high-cognitive-load group: 43% more unhealthy snacks (95% CI: 11% - 85%) and 94 more total calories (95% CI: 19-169).
Conclusions: Televised food advertising has strong effects on individual food choice, and these effects are magnified when individuals are cognitively occupied by other tasks.