Every year, food companies spend a large amount of money on marketing to sell their products. Advertising is one of the most important marketing methods.
Usually a food advertisement uses some engaging themes to link with appealing content (e.g., cartoon characters) and induces craving for the advertised food.
Children are an important customer group for food products. When they are bombarded with attractive food advertisements, they may become loyal customers for a lifetime.
However, many advertised food are considered unhealthy by nutritionists. They may contain too much sugar, salt or fat. These food products are intrinsically rewarding, and often children can eat much more than they should.
In a recent article published in Current Opinion in Behavioral Science, researchers discuss how food advertisements (especially for unhealthy food) can influence children’s eating behavior.
Previous research shows that food cues in advertisements can increase heart rate, gastric activity, and salivation. Food cues can also increase thoughts about food. This in turn can activate an appetitive state, resulting in eating and weight gain in the long run.
Typically, exposure to food cues in advertising is related to a high intake of foods among children, particularly for snack foods. Interestingly, food advertisements often influence the food category children want to choose.
For example, if children see an advertisement about candy-brand X, they may not eat that specific candy brand. Instead, they may eat more candy products generally.
Because children have less cognitive control to their behavior, they may automatically process all food cues and accept the persuasive message.
Furthermore, food advertisements can have a larger impact on impulsive children. These children are more susceptible to advertised energy-dense snacks and gain weight more easily. Recent findings also show that overweight children respond to food advertisements faster than children with normal weight.
Brain studies show that food brand logos can activate brain regions related to self-regulation in obese children, but not in lean children. The brain activity can also predict BMI one year later.
This suggests that some children have a greater tendency than others to eat unhealthy and rewarding snacks after seeing food advertisements. Eating these snacks in turn makes the children more susceptible to the cues of energy-dense snacks.
Researchers suggest that in the new social media age, food advertisements may influence children’s eating behavior more than traditional TV food advertisements. In addition, younger children may be more easily to be affected by advertisements.
To protect children from unhealthy food advertisements, schools should increase education about advertising literacy for children.
Citation: Folkvord F, et al. (2016). Food advertising and eating behavior in children. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences, 9: 26–31. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cobeha.2015.11.016
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