Marketing and the food environment

The food industry argues that personal responsibility (not the food environment, marketing or crappy food quality) is the problem causing obesity. In the words of Kelly Brownell, Director of Yale’s center for Eating and Weight Disorders; “The argument cannot be supported by either science or common sense. The rate of obesity increases year after year, in country after country. It is difficult to argue that the world’s people were less responsible in 2002 than in 2001 or that irresponsibility is sweeping the globe.” (Feeding the Future, edited by Andrew Heintzman and Evan Solomon 2004)

Food companies, especially those involved in transformation of cheap, high energy grains into “added value” products as well as those companies involved in food marketing have long understood, though perhaps indirectly, many of the influences which drive food consumption and eating behaviour. Recent research in neurology illustrating the function of mirror neurons, as well as a close relationship in the brain between brain areas responsible for responding to taste and smell sensations and those areas responsible for storing emotional memories indicate to us that direct neurological effect of advertising on our desires when it comes to food. Even in primates, mirror neurons have been shown to fire associated reward and taste circuits when the animals saw lab workers eating ice cream cones. Frequent bombardment by visual, auditory and multimedia stimuli to drive us to eat more processed food strongly strengthens desire for this food in the brain. When you consider that an average North American child is exposed to approximately 10,000 TV advertisements per year, mostly for soft drinks, fast food, sugared cereals and snacks foods; is it any wonder that these foods become primary choices in their diet as they grow older?


Understanding market forces and becoming marketing literate is not sufficient to counteract these subtle neurological effects which anchor already biologically tempting foods (containing high levels of sugar, fat and salt) in our brains through marketing. When we see someone enjoying an ice cold Coke, smiling and enjoying the company of good friends, our brain inevitably puts us in their shoes through the magic of mirror neurons and anchors a sensation of drinking the beverage with the enjoyment that we imagine they must be feeling. Later, when deciding what to drink we reference these memories in order to make a choice and the more often we have seen these marketing messages the stronger their influence will be on our choices.

In this modern, multimedia marketing world, is there a solution to this dilemma? Government health agencies seem to think that fighting fire with fire is the way to go — by advertising healthy foods to displace the unhealthy ones in our emotional memory. This only adds to the noise and confusion while increasing the forces that push us to eat more. I believe that one of the few solutions open to us is to reduce our exposure to marketing messages. Don’t forget that though the medium may be the message, the product being sold to those paying to produce the media is YOU! When companies sponsor the production of television, movies or any other media it is an indirect way of buying your attention, your energy and your time. When you understand the implications of mirror neurons and emotional anchoring in the mind, you also understand that they are paying for direct access to your brain and influencing your behavior in ways that are invisible to your conscious mind. Will you freely sacrifice your time, your energy, your life (or that of your kids) to these vultures?

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This entry was posted on 12/03/2011 at 10:53 PM and is filed under Blogue. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.