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Do Junk Food Ads Make You Hungry?

Food companies spend billions of dollars a year to market their products to young people and keep them craving more

Jerritt Clark, Courtesy of McDonald’s

Rapper Travis Scott signed a sponsorship deal with McDonald’s in the fall. Who do you think is the target audience?

Eight teenagers were recently invited to a restaurant in the United Kingdom as part of a filmed social experiment. After sitting down, each of them was handed a menu with more than 50 different items to choose from and a sealed envelope. Then they were asked to order one item off the menu.

The teens all picked the same thing: the “triple dipped chicken.” After receiving their meals, they opened their sealed envelopes, and each pulled out a piece of paper. They were in shock: The words triple dipped chicken were written on it. The producers of the film had predicted exactly what each teen was going to order.

How? By utilizing the same techniques that junk food companies use to market their products to young people. Little did the teens know that leading up to their visits, the producers had bombarded them with advertisements for the fried chicken dish—on billboards, in taxicabs, and in Instagram posts made by influencers. Even though the teens said they didn’t notice the ads, it was clear that the marketing had influenced their decision making.

The video was created last year by the U.K.-based nonprofit Bite Back 2030 to draw attention to the methods that junk food companies use to target young people with ads.

Eight teenagers were recently invited to a restaurant in the United Kingdom. It was part of a filmed social experiment. After sitting down, each of them received a menu and a sealed envelope. Then they were asked to order one item off the menu, which had more than 50 different items to choose from.

The teens all picked the same thing: the “triple dipped chicken.” After receiving their meals, they opened their sealed envelopes. Each of them pulled out a piece of paper. The words triple dipped chicken were written on it. The teens were all shocked. The producers of the film had predicted exactly what each teen was going to order.

How? By using the same methods that junk food companies use to market their products to young people. The teens didn’t know that all of this had been set up before their visits. The producers had flooded them with advertisements for the fried chicken dish. They used billboards, taxicab ads, and Instagram posts made by influencers to do so. The teens said they didn’t notice the ads. Still, it was clear that the marketing had influenced their decision making.

The video was created last year by the U.K.-based nonprofit Bite Back 2030. It aims to draw attention to the methods that junk food companies use to target young people with ads.

It shows just how powerful that marketing is, says James Toop, CEO of the organization, which is working to make the food industry healthier.

“What surprised the young people the most is how subliminal it was,” Toop says. “They didn’t even know this thing existed. We had only marketed it to them for a few days, and yet they all picked it.”

It shows just how powerful that marketing is, says James Toop, CEO of the nonprofit. The organization is working to make the food industry healthier.

“What surprised the young people the most is how subliminal it was,” Toop says. “They didn’t even know this thing existed. We had only marketed it to them for a few days, and yet they all picked it.”

BiteBack2030

Ads for the triple dipped chicken were planted along the way to the restaurant.

Advertisement Overload

Whether scrolling through TikTok, watching YouTube videos, or binge-watching your favorite TV show, you probably see a lot of ads for junk food.

There’s a reason for that. Food and beverage companies spent $13.4 billion
in 2017 on advertising in the United States, according to the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut. And about 80 percent of those ads were for fast food, sugary drinks, candy, and unhealthy snacks.

Teens and younger children are the target audience for a lot of those ads, according to the Rudd Center. Young people in the U.S. see about 10 food-related TV ads per day. And 70 percent of American teens say they have liked, shared, or followed food and beverage brands on social media.

Why do junk food makers try to win over young people? Because, experts say, they’re trying to build brand loyalty. The earlier they get you eating their products, the more devoted a customer you’ll be throughout your life—and that’s good for the companies’ bottom lines.

“Young people are much more impressionable,” Toop says, “and they’re much more targetable with their phones.”

You probably see a lot of ads for junk food. They might pop up while you’re scrolling through TikTok or watching YouTube videos. They can also appear while you’re binge-watching your favorite TV show.

There’s a reason for that. Food and beverage companies spent $13.4 billion in 2017 on advertising in the United States, according to the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut. And about 80 percent of those ads were for fast food, sugary drinks, candy, and unhealthy snacks.

Teens and younger children are the target audience for a lot of those ads, according to the Rudd Center. Young people in the U.S. see about 10 food-related TV ads per day. And 70 percent of American teens say they have liked, shared, or followed food and beverage brands on social media.

Why do junk food makers try to win over young people? Because, experts say, they’re trying to build brand loyalty. The earlier they get you eating their products, the more devoted a customer you’ll be throughout your life. And that’s good for the companies’ bottom lines.

“Young people are much more impressionable,” Toop says, “and they’re much more targetable with their phones.”

Experts say social media has made junk food advertising even more effective—and difficult to spot—partly because it turns everyday users into “brand ambassadors” (see “Tools of the Trade” below). By liking and sharing posts of junk food, people end up marketing those brands to their followers, who often don’t realize they’re seeing ads.

All this advertising seems to be working. According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, young people eat 45 percent more after watching food ads on TV, whether they feel hungry or not. In fact, researchers at the University of Michigan have even found that fast-food ads hijack the “reward” section of teenagers’ brains, causing them to crave unhealthy foods.

Experts say social media has made junk food advertising even more effective and difficult to spot. That’s partly because it turns everyday users into “brand ambassadors” (see “Tools of the Trade” below). By liking and sharing posts of junk food, people end up marketing those brands to their followers. And social media users often don’t realize they’re seeing ads.

All this advertising seems to be working. According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, young people eat 45 percent more after watching food ads on TV, whether they feel hungry or not. In fact, researchers at the University of Michigan have even found that fast-food ads hijack the “reward” section of teenagers’ brains. That causes them to crave unhealthy foods.

Goodbye Ads & Mascots?

Of course, it’s okay to indulge in fast food, candy, or soda once in a while. But many experts think junk food ads are a big reason why one in five young people in the U.S., ages 12 to 19, struggle with obesity—and they’re calling for more government regulations.

Some countries have already taken action. In Chile, for example, ads for unhealthy foods and beverages are banned from appearing on TV before 10 p.m., and cartoon brand mascots, such as Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah, which are used to attract young customers, are prohibited. The U.K. also announced this summer that it was barring junk food ads from TV and the internet before 9 p.m.

But no such laws exist in the U.S. Some believe that banning junk food ads denies people the ability to make their own choices about what to eat. Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian* think tank, says bans on advertisements “amount to a form of censorship.”

Of course, it’s okay to indulge in fast food, candy, or soda once in a while. But many experts think junk food ads are a big reason why one in five young people in the U.S., ages 12 to 19, struggle with obesity. They’re calling for more government regulations.

Some countries have already taken action. For example, ads for unhealthy foods and beverages are blocked from appearing on TV before 10 p.m. in Chile. The country has also banned cartoon brand mascots, such as Cheetos’ Chester Cheetah, which are used to attract young customers. The U.K. also announced this summer that it was barring junk food ads from TV and the internet before 9 p.m.

But no such laws exist in the U.S. Some believe that banning junk food ads denies people the ability to make their own choices about what to eat. Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian* think tank, says bans on advertisements “amount to a form of censorship.”

Should junk food ads be banned?

He asks, “Where does the government get off telling us what we can hear?”

Critics of ad bans also point out that efforts to regulate unhealthy food and beverages have been unpopular in the past. When then-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg tried to ban “supersized” sugary drinks in 2012, for instance, he received pushback and the measure was struck down by the state Supreme Court on the grounds that the board of health had overstepped its authority.

Ultimately, many experts say that we’re our own best defense against junk food marketing. Christopher Bryan, a behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, says teens should understand that these ads are trying to manipulate them—for example, by appealing to their desire to fit in with their peers—and learn to question them.

“When you see an ad and you recognize that clearly this is portraying something you know isn’t healthy as really appealing,” he says, “remember that the people making the ads have that goal.”

He asks, “Where does the government get off telling us what we can hear?”

Critics of ad bans also point out that efforts to regulate unhealthy food and beverages have been unpopular in the past. In 2012, then-New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg tried to ban “supersized” sugary drinks. He received pushback, and the measure was struck down by the state Supreme Court. The Court ruled that the board of health had overstepped its authority.

Ultimately, many experts say that we’re our own best defense against junk food marketing. Christopher Bryan, a behavioral science professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, says teens should understand that these ads are trying to manipulate them. For example, ads might appeal to their desire to fit in with their peers. He adds that teens must learn to question them.

“When you see an ad and you recognize that clearly this is portraying something you know isn’t healthy as really appealing,” he says, “remember that the people making the ads have that goal.”

*A political philosophy that advocates as little government intervention as possible in the economy and in the lives of citizens

*A political philosophy that advocates as little government intervention as possible in the economy and in the lives of citizens

Tools of the Trade

Food and beverage companies know that the best way to reach teens is through their phones. Here are a few of the ways they do it.

Mountain Dew via Instagram

#Hashtag Campaigns

Companies try to get their ads to go viral by coming up with funny or interesting hashtags and TikTok challenges. When you share one of these on your social media, you’re really doing free advertising for that company.

#Hashtag Campaigns

Companies try to get their ads to go viral by coming up with funny or interesting hashtags and TikTok challenges. When you share one of these on your social media, you’re really doing free advertising for that company.

Apps & Games

Many fast-food restaurants have apps that track users and ping them with notifications when they’re near a restaurant. Some junk food companies also create their own mobile games that are really ads in disguise.

Apps & Games

Many fast-food restaurants have apps that track users and ping them with notifications when they’re near a restaurant. Some junk food companies also create their own mobile games that are really ads in disguise.

Celebrity Endorsements

When you see a celebrity post about a food or beverage product on social media, often that celebrity is getting paid to do so. Advertisers know that many teens want to mimic their favorite stars. Celebrities also usually have a lot more followers than food companies do, so they can reach a larger audience.

Celebrity Endorsements

When you see a celebrity post about a food or beverage product on social media, often that celebrity is getting paid to do so. Advertisers know that many teens want to mimic their favorite stars. Celebrities also usually have a lot more followers than food companies do, so they can reach a larger audience.

SOURCE: Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

SOURCE: Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

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