Sharon Palmer, R.D.

After a long day, you've finally settled down to a quiet evening in front of the television. A fast food commercial pops up and you feast your eyes on a glistening cheeseburger. The next thing you know, you're hungry and you've got a hankering for a burger. Is this mere coincidence or do food ads really hold the power to change the way you eat? The answer is right before your eyes; multi-million dollar advertising campaigns would not exist if they didn't work.

Food marketing success.

"There's no question; marketing of food affects eating behavior. It's not just exposure to one ad; it's the cumulative exposure of many ads over time that produces a desire for a product. The foods advertised the most are the foods people say they like the most and buy the most," says Jennifer Harris, Ph.D., M.B.A., Director of Marketing Initiatives and Associate Research Scientist at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, which conducts research on the effects of food marketing.

Researchers have uncovered disturbing findings linked with food marketing, according to Harris.

-- Advertising can affect a person's preference for categories of food.

-- People who see more fast food commercials want to eat more fast food than those people who see fewer commercials.

-- When people are exposed to food ads, they eat more food overall.

-- If people see an ad before they taste a food, they like the taste of that food more.

Food marketing can also affect what you think is typical behavior. For example, people who see more fast food ads think that their neighbors eat fast food more often. "Advertising has psychological effects on what you think is normal. TV advertising has strong affects that are visual and emotional, with stories and music. When you're tired and relaxed in front of the TV, you have less ability to control your impulses," adds Harris.

The wrong kind of message.

The power that food marketers wield wouldn't be so problematic if they were advertising healthy food, like fruits and vegetables. "The vast majority of ads are for unhealthy products such as fast food, drinks and snack foods," stresses Harris. And it's not just the unhealthful products being portrayed; it's an entire eating message. Recent food ads promote the message that young men should "eat like a man" with big portions of meat, and that it's a great idea to enjoy a "fourth meal" of the day. To see samples of unwholesome food ads, visit the Yale Rudd Center's website ( and view the Worst Food Marketing Practices.

Targeting kids.

Food marketing packs its most powerful punch on the young. The average kid sees 15 food commercials a day, and all it takes is one commercial to make a young person desire a particular food. Marketing also takes place in the grocery store, with TV characters on packages and shelf displays at children's eye level. Let's not forget the Internet, which is brimming with food marketing on children's websites, social media websites and advergames (online games that feature food products as active components of the game.) In fact, viewing and childhood obesity is directly related to children's exposure to commercials that advertise unhealthy foods, according to a study published in the American Journal of Public Health in February 2010.

The Interagency Working Group on Food Marketed to Children, a taskforce that includes the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Food and Drug Administration and Federal Trade Commission, will make food marketing recommendations to Congress this summer. And the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has developed "Guidelines for Responsible Food Marketing to Children" (available at, which include criteria for food marketing that doesn't undermine the health of children. Maybe someday the whole family will be able to enjoy a quiet hour of TV without being barraged by food temptations.

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