Does Advertising Contribute to Obesity?

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Advertising as an industry has had many years of experience in analysing how people think and what gets them to buy certain products. The mediums advertisers use may have changed drastically, everything from Google sponsored search results and YouTube pop-ups are now commonplace, but this “ability” has remained the same. Only now they have more information about their target audiences than ever before which makes targeting specific demographics and social groups so much easier. That’s why advertisers only have to say something like: “It’s Toasted” to get us reaching for that product.

Mad Men quotes aside, advertising fills up most of our recreational activities; the problem is we usually only notice if we stop to look around as we surf the Web. Television and radio still remain significant information providers in terms of what products we should be purchasing during our grocery runs, but the sheer volume of ads we’re exposed to these days is having an interesting effect on social habits. As a recent article discussing a new obesity study, is excessive weight being fuelled by excessive advertising?

The study proposes that an image of something like a delicious piece of cake causes an increase in ghrelin, a hormone responsible for feelings of appetite and hunger. It’s reported to be the first time that a release of the hormone has been attributed to external factors such as images. Pavlov’s dog and a little bell apparently wasn’t enough. However, that was a bell, and this is simply a picture of a deliciously moist and perfect piece of chocolate fudge cake slathered in cream.

If you hadn’t noticed you were now thinking about a nice piece of cake, my attempts to create the same effect as produced by the researchers has obviously failed. As poor as my own “advertising” was, the professionals know how to promote the right things and it seems like the article, and indeed the study, might have found a further reason obesity levels continue to rise worldwide.

A large part of what advertising does is associate certain characteristics with either a product or a brand over time. Most fast food restaurants are more recognisable to youths now days than religious figures and famous politicians, as was fantastically highlighted in the documentary Supersize Me, so it would suggest it’s only natural that that’s what they would want to eat instead of unknown brand vegetables. The same applies to older generations, only now this effect is probably compounded by knowledge of a particular product or recall ability, because of more exposure to the product via consumption or advertising. It’s unsurprising then that this kind of study has been linked to obesity, as the majority of food advertising will focus on more mainstream/chain brands rather than healthy diets that could combat the disease.

To put it simply, using people’s behaviour with the increase of advertising, along with the association between hunger and “tastier” foods provided at fast food outlets, it’s safe to say advertising is probably contributing to excessive weight and obesity.

Advertising of smoking is outlawed in the United Kingdom and continues to be aggressively attacked in the United States along with smoking laws. Australia has now also led that particular fight for some time with banning numerous aspects of advertising and branding of cigarette packs. Numerous instances of these advertisements promoting tobacco use were raised to get this done. Though there is some regulation in place relating to the advertising of unhealthy food and beverages, to date these tend to focus on advertising that is targeted at children. Surely, given the above in mind, it would be beneficial to also bring in some form of limitation on advertising these products in general.

Hopefully we will see changes in this area come into place, because as is becoming more and more apparent throughout the world, obesity needs to be tackled with equal interest and vigour as other pandemics such as HIV and other life threatening lifestyle habits such as smoking.


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