Food marketing has a profound — and complex — influence on consumers and is often blamed for the (increasingly global) obesity epidemic. Food companies are not in business to make people fat, however. They’re in business to make money. Research into the effects of the ‘4 Ps’ of marketing — ‘price’, ‘promotion’, ‘product’ and ‘place’ — on food consumption suggests there are profitable changes they could make to help people eat more healthily.
A review of consumer research (based mainly in North America) and of literature from marketing and related social science disciplines confirms that marketing affects food consumption in ways beyond advertising.
Pricing is one of the strongest influences. One econometric study, for example, found that a 10 per cent increase in prices at fast-food and full-service restaurants was associated with a 0.7 per cent decrease in the obesity rate. Discounts, on the other hand, fuel consumption. Price deals on larger packs or multi-unit packs can cause people to stockpile food — and eat more often things they might otherwise think of as ‘treats’.
Importantly, price promotions can influence our choices over time. Probably the best evidence of this comes from a field experiment in 2010. Involving 1,104 shoppers, it found that a 12.5 per cent temporary price reduction increased the sales of healthier foods by 11 per cent among lower-income consumers — and that the effect persisted for six months after the promotion stopped.
Although the discounts did not reduce sales of unhealthy food, the experiment suggests that pricing helps ‘educate’ consumers. (Nutrition information and suggestions for substituting healthier food for less healthy food were ineffective in comparison.)
Pricing, however, cannot alone explain the rise in obesity. The way marketers communicate to promote their products also exerts a powerful — if more subliminal — influence. A 2011 study, for example, showed that branding the same food as a ‘salad special’ versus a ‘pasta special’ or as ‘fruit chews’ rather than ‘candy chews’ increased dieters’ perceptions of the healthfulness or tastiness of the food as well as its actual consumption.
Often, products benefit from ‘health halos’ — perceptions that because they’re healthier in one aspect (e.g. fat content) they’re healthier in all aspects and can therefore be consumed in bigger quantities.
Related to the ‘halo effect’ is the ‘negative calorie illusion’. Research shows that a hamburger, for example, will be perceived as having fewer calories if teamed with a salad.
Illusions also apply to packaging and product size. In general, people underestimate volume changes to packs/containers — especially when they cross all three dimensions (height, width, and length). They will, for example, see a 100 per cent increase as a 50 or 70 per cent increase — and perceive a tall, cylindrical container as bigger than a short, wider one of the same capacity. Increases in pack sizes make it more difficult for people to self-regulate. ‘Supersizing’ has distorted perceptions of ‘standard’ and ‘normal’ portions.
The content of the packs themselves — the products — can also, of course, cause people to over-eat. Adding sugar, fat and salt, especially in combination, improves palatability (up to a certain level) but does not increase the satiating power of the food in the same proportion. Increased product complexity is another problem: the more variety and flavours, the greater our desire.
Many companies have introduced healthier brand extensions and increased the level of taste-neutral positive nutrients such as vitamins in response to health concerns or regulatory changes. The net gain, however, could be limited. One study showed that the average nutritional quality of food on sale in grocery stores had got slightly worse since the introduction of the 1990 Nutrition Labeling and Education Act in the US. This may be due to reluctance to reduce fat and sodium, etc, in flagship brands for fear of losing out to competitors.
Whatever the reason, it’s a problem: what we eat is linked to what’s readily available. Access, salience, convenience and environment (place) are big factors. To cite just a few findings:
Marketers can collaborate with public policy makers in a ‘small steps’ approach to obesity prevention. Instead of didactic/‘preachy’ messages, this approach focuses on benevolent interventions that ‘nudge’ consumers into making slightly better choices — and repeating those choices.
These interventions include:
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