TV Junk-Food Ads Trigger ‘Automatic Eating’

July 8, 2009

Children and adults who watch TV food ads, especially those for unhealthy products, are more likely to snack on foods at hand, and are potentially at higher risk of becoming obese, according to a series of experimental studies done by researchers at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.

In one experiment, children ages 7-11 who watched a cartoon including food commercials ate 45% more snack food while watching the show than children who watched the same cartoon with non-food commercials.

These results indicate that, with as little as a half hour of television viewing a day, the increase in snacking caused by food advertising would lead to a weight gain of nearly 10 pounds a year – unless it was mitigated by reduced consumption of other foods or increased physical activity, Yale said.

Junk Food More Persuasive

In a second experiment, the researchers found that adult participants exposed to unhealthy food advertisements in TV programs also ate significantly more than those who saw ads with a nutrition or healthy food message. These effects persisted after the TV viewing.

While TV food ads are, by design, created to increase purchase and consumption of the foods being advertised, Yale noted that both experiments caused adults and children to increase mindless intake of any foods they had available, including those not specifically presented in the advertisements.

“This research shows a direct and powerful link between television food advertising and calories consumed by adults and children,” said Jennifer Harris, PhD, the study’s lead author and director of Marketing Initiatives at the Rudd Center. “Food advertising triggers automatic eating, regardless of hunger, and is a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic. Reducing unhealthy food advertising to children is critical.”

About the study: The research appears in the July issue of the journal Health Psychology, published by the American Psychological Association. In addition to Harris, the Yale team of researchers included John A. Bargh and Kelly D. Brownell. The research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Rudd Center at Yale.


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