A study out of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity by Jennifer Harris, John Bargh, and Kelly Brownell has a pretty scary message for all of us. First, they looked at how susceptible kids are to food advertising. They had kids watch cartoons that contained typical 30-second food ads (or non-food ads as a control group). While they were watching, there was a bowl of goldfish crackers in front of them. While watching cartoons with food ads, the kids ate 45% more goldfish than watching cartoons with non-food ads. And they had no clue about the effect. They didn’t realize they had eaten so much.
Of course, these are kids. That wouldn’t work with you, would it? So here is study 2. They had adults watch a TV documentary that had either snack food ads, healthful food ads, or non-food ads (control group). Then they moved them over to a “completely unrelated” study taste testing various foods. The adults who had been exposed to the snack food ads ate significantly more of all foods they were testing. More of the snack foods and more of the healthful foods. The adults who had been exposed to healthful food ads didn’t eat more of anything compared to the control group. So it wasn’t just that it was good advertising. It was specifically snack food ads.
But here is the part that I consider a little scary. The adults did not show any awareness of the effect. They didn’t realize how much they had eaten. They didn’t see a link to the ads. They were not more hungry after seeing the ads. They just mindlessly ate more. And it wasn’t a bowl of snacks that we all mindlessly eat. It was a taste test experiment.
The libertarian in me would never want to create a nanny state that outlawed snack food ads. If you or I want to eat junk food we should have that right. But I also believe in access to information. My liberty depends on me having enough information to make an informed choice. That is what liberty really means. So if it is so easy to manipulate us, is that liberty? Really?
OK, so we don’t want a nanny state but we also don’t want to be manipulated. What is the middle ground? For medication ads, they have those silly warnings at the end (or bottom of the screen) that no one pays any attention to. There is also research that shows that these kinds of warnings backfire for a variety of reasons that would be an entire post of their own. “It must taste REALLY good if they need a warning label.” Or “Do they really think I am that gullible? To show my autonomy, I am going to go out and eat some of that RIGHT NOW.” You would be surprised how big of an effect these have.
So what is your answer? Any ideas out there?