Food Advertising

“Inside this bag is your food moment.  Roll up your sleeves and open wide.  Ketchup will splatter and soft serve will drip.  Tasty mouthfuls will quiet the conversation.  And once the moment has passed, all that will be left is a crumpled up wrapper, this bag, and a happy you.” - Message on a Burger King Bag

Subliminal ideas and imagery have been placed in print advertisements for low-nutrition foods like candy, fast food, and soft drinks.  Also, many associations presented in advertising, for low-nutrition foods, pertain to happiness and comfort.

Advertisers know that many people consume low-nutrition food in order to temporarily alleviate anxiety.  If left unchecked, the consumption of low-nutrition food can turn into a food addiction.  Addiction results in an increase in the purchases of low-nutrition food because the food addict becomes a repeat consumer.

There are three areas that low-nutrition food companies and advertisers focus on in order to increase sales of low-nutrition foods:  Anxiety, Cravings, and Addiction.


Advertisers know that feelings of anxiousness will create the situation where people will seek out something to alleviate the anxiety.

According to authors Thomas O'Guinn, Chris Allen, and Richard J. Semenik:

“People try to avoid feeling anxious.  They try to minimize, moderate, and alleviate anxiety.” (1)
“Often people will buy or consume things to help them in their continuing struggle with anxiety.” (2)
“Advertisers realize this and use many settings to demonstrate why you should be anxious and what you can do to alleviate the anxiety.” (3)
Advertisers pursue a change behavior-by-inducing-anxiety objective by playing on consumer anxieties.  The ads work through both thought and feelings.” (4)

Barbara Aufiero, a freelance writer, states the following:

“During periods of anxiety, comfort foods may be sought as a way of coping with symptoms.  Like the Western diet, many of these foods, including cake, cookies, and ice cream, are high in sugar.  Binging on these types of food puts you at risk of weight gain as well as dependency.” (5)

“Eating low-nutrition foods can temporarily relieve the symptoms of anxiety.  However, eating low-nutrition like candy, fast food, and soft drinks will physiologically create more anxiety for the consumers.” (6)

“On the other hand, a western diet, composed of fried foods, refined grains, sugary foods and beer was associated with an increase in psychological symptoms of anxiety.” (7)

Award-winning journalist Jessica Thompson states:

“Although the initial energy boost from a high-sugar and high-fat snack can alleviate stress temporarily, these foods tend to aggravate symptoms of anxiety in the long term.” (8)

According to the Anxiety Disorders Association of America, “about two-thirds of people with eating disorders also suffered from an anxiety disorder.” (9)

Not only is anxiety involved with advertising and food consumption, cravings and addiction are involved as well.


According to author Martin Lindstrom, “Some companies that sell low-nutrition foods deliberately spike their recipes to include addictive quantities of habit-forming substances like MSG, caffeine, corn syrup, and sugar.” (10)

Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D. conducted a study where rats were fed high-fat and high calorie foods.  This study showed that these foods “affect the brain in much the same way as cocaine and heroin.” (11)

Paul J. Kenny, Ph.D., states:

“Doing drugs such as cocaine and eating too much junk food both gradually overload the so-called pleasure centers in the brain.  Eventually, the pleasure centers “crash,” and achieving the same pleasure-or even just feeling normal-requires increasing amounts of the drug or food.  People know intuitively that there’s more to [overeating] than just will power.  There’s a system in the brain that’s been turned on or over-activated, and that’s driving at some subconscious level.” (12)

Bloomberg reporters Robert Langreth and Duane D. Standford state:

“Sugars and fats, of course, have always been present in the human diet and our bodies are programmed to crave them. What has changed is modern processing that creates food with concentrated levels of sugars, unhealthy fats and refined flour, without redeeming levels of fiber or nutrients, obesity experts said. Consumption of large quantities of those processed foods may be changing the way the brain is wired.” (13)

According to author Kay Sheppard, MA:

“We now see that the brain of the food addict is predisposed to respond differently to addictive foods due to dopamine receptor deficiencies and that addictive foods stimulate and increase the transmission of the neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin. When the brain is flooded with these neurotransmitters, euphoria results leading to the compulsive pursuit of a mood change by engaging repeatedly in episodes of binge eating. Tolerance builds, increasing the frequency and amounts of the substance needed.” (14)

“How do addictive food substances compare to other addictive chemicals? Addictive substances are forms of plant life which have been refined or pro­cessed in order to be ingested by drinking, eating, inhaling or injecting. The refinement process facilitates quick absorption of substances into the blood stream which effectively alters brain chemistry and changes mood by flooding the brain with the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.” (15)

“Food addicts seek this mood change by eating refined and processed carbohydrates. This results in short-term highs, followed by a long period of depressed feelings. In order to avoid the low, the addict eats more. The food addict eats to feel better and always feels worse due to this flooding and depleting of neurotransmitters.” (16)

Serge Ahmed, PhD, University of Bordeaux, France, is a scientist who specializes in addiction research.  He conducted a study that clearly demonstrated “that intense sweetness can surpass cocaine reward, even in drug-sensitized and addicted individuals.  His cocaine-addicted laboratory rats consistently chose sugar over cocaine.”  (17)

Another study with laboratory rates was conducted by Nicole M. Avena, Pedro Rada, and Bartley G. Hoebel.  This study demonstrated “that the characteristics of sugar addiction are similar to the binging, withdrawal and craving experienced in drug addiction. These findings further indicate that sugar is potentially as addictive because it is a substance that acts on brain circuits such as the dopamine and opioid pathways.” (18)

According to writer Kate Cahill:

“The phrase "comfort food" refers to the common sensation, the pleasant, content feeling that comes after a good meal. On a molecular level, that feeling comes from a sudden increase in dopamine, a particular signal in your parts of your brain. Unfortunately, for some overeating can become addictive.” (19)  

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter or signal in the brain is released by neurons in response to rewarding activities. These neurons are found in the nucleus accumbens, amygdala and brainstem, regions that are linked in a circuit that is activated when a person experiences pleasure after activities like eating, drinking or sexual activity. That signal can also be triggered by addictive drugs like heroin and surprisingly, in response to food. (20)

In fact, the food response is so strong that Dr. Nora Volkow's research at Brookhaven National Laboratory has shown that the mere sight or smell of food can increase dopamine levels and lead to craving and hunger. In some cases, the dopamine signal can be so strong that it leads to harmful behaviors of craving, binging and chronic overeating.” (21)

Think about this part of the last statement:  “the mere sight…of food can increase dopamine levels and lead to craving and hunger.”

The sight of food is presented in food advertisements to the viewers.  Just the sight of the food in a food advertisement increases dopamine levels and can lead to craving and hunger.


Certain food advertisements may influence cravings for low-nutrition foods, especially for people with food addictions.  A food advertisement can serve as both a food cue and a trigger.

Adults and children are bombarded with food advertisements (food cues) on a daily basis.

Adults in the US are exposed to 7,212 food ads per year on average. (22)
Each day, children in the US are exposed to 15 TV commercials for food.  This adds up to almost 5,500 food advertisements in a year, with 98% of these advertisements promoting products high in fat, salt, and sugar. (23)

According to a psychology research report by Laura Sobik, Kent Hutchison, Linda Craighead:

“Recent research has indicated that craving for food can be elicited by exposure to food cues, suggesting that exposure to food cues may represent a useful experimental paradigm to investigate mechanisms related to binge eating.” (24)

Investigator Dante Pirouz, MBA, MA states:

“For heavily marketed products that are addictive such as cigarettes, alcohol, and even food, advertising cues may induce craving which might lead to higher purchase and consumption especially for addicted users.” (25)

Author Martin Lindstrom states:

“But while cravings may seem to come out of nowhere, in reality they are often triggered by some physical and emotional cues in our surroundings, whether we realize it or not.  The truth is, no matter how much we believe we’re in control, when it comes to craving, we are often powerless in the face of these triggers.  Companies know this, which is why they deliberately imbue their packaging and advertising with “unconscious signals”—cues that lie just beneath our conscious awareness, right at those very moments when cravings are liable to strike.” (26)

Ashley Gearhardt, MS at Yale’s Rudd Center for Obesity Research and Policy conducted a study using a fMRI to study brain activity when 48 women were offered a chocolate milkshake. 

Here are some findings of this study:

“The team found that seeing the milkshake triggered brain activity in the anterior cingulated cortex and the medial orbitofrontal cortex-brain areas what have been implicated in an addict’s urge to use drugs.” (27)

“Like drug addicts, people with food addiction may struggle with increased cravings and stronger urges to eat in response to food cues and may feel more out-of-control when eating something delicious.” (28)

“Ubiquitous food advertising and the availability of inexpensive palatable foods may make it extremely difficult to adhere to healthier food choices because the omnipresent food cues trigger the reward system.” (29)

Ashley Gearhardt, MS states:

“Addicted individuals are more likely to be physiologically, psychologically, and behaviorally reactive to triggers such as advertising. The possibility that food-related cues may trigger pathological properties is of special concern in the current food environment, where highly palatable foods are constantly available and heavily marketed.” (30)

Many people crave low-nutrition foods and have fallen prey to food addiction.  People with food addictions are a considerable segment of consumers for the candy, fast food, and soft drink companies.


“Adult obesity more than doubled between 1970 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention” (31)

In the U.S., a third of adults and 17 percent of teens and children are obese, and those numbers are increasing.” (32)

Up to one out of every five children in the U.S. is overweight or obese, and this number is continuing to grow. (33)

In 2008 obesity-related medical spending cost our nation $147 billion. (34)

A revised CDC study stated that obesity in America was responsible for 112,000 deaths every year. (35)

Here are some statistics from The World Health Organization (WHO) for obesity on a global scale:

Worldwide obesity has more than doubled since 1980. (36)
Approximately 1.6 billion adults (age 15+) were overweight (37)
At least 400 million adults were obese (38)
Overall, more than one in ten of the world’s adult population was obese (39)
At least 20 million children under the age of 5 years are overweight. (40)
The WHO also projected that by 2015, approximately 2.3 billion adults will be overweight and more than 700 million will be obese. (41)

According to WebMD concerning obesity in children:

“Children have fewer weight-related health and medical problems than adults. However, overweight children are at high risk of becoming overweight adolescents and adults, placing them at risk of developing chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes later in life. They are also more prone to develop stress, sadness, and low self-esteem.” (42)

According to Bloomberg reporters Robert Langreth and Duane D. Stanford:

“The cost to society is enormous. A 2009 study of 900,000 people, published in The Lancet, found that moderate obesity reduces life expectancy by two to four years, while severe obesity shortens life expectancy by as much as 10 years. Obesity has been shown to boost the risk of heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, osteoarthritis, sleep apnea and stroke, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The costs of treating illness associated with obesity were estimated at $147 billion in 2008, according to a 2009 study in Health Affairs.” (43)


The Obama administration introduced a proposal “that calls for food makers to voluntarily limit the way they market sugary cereals, salty snacks and other foods to children and teens.” (44)

“From yogurt makers to candy manufacturers, they lined up Tuesday to tell regulators that the first-ever proposed guidelines for marketing to children would not stop the childhood obesity problem but would certainly hurt their businesses and abridge their right to free speech.” (45)

“The guidelines, ordered by Congress and written by a team from the Federal Trade Commission, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Agriculture Department, ignited a debate about the role of marketing in soaring obesity rates among children.” (46)

Daniel Levy from the American Academy of Pediatrics states:

“It’s clear that food marketing to children is a big factor.  Children and teens are being hit by food ads wherever they turn.” (47)

“The long-awaited guidelines, jointly proposed today by four federal agencies, drew an immediate rebuke from the ad industry, which called the initiative "overly restrictive" and based on "limited and outdated information." (48)

Dan Jaffe, exec VP-government relations for the Association of National Advertisers states:

"If companies were to comply with these proposals, the restrictions are sufficiently onerous that they would basically block a substantial amount of advertising.” (49)

Well, there you have it. Low-Nutrition Companies and advertisers for these companies are not accepting responsibility for both making addictive low-nutrition foods and then advertising these foods to a global populace where obesity, health problems, and costs are on the rise.


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  3. Children and teens are surrounded by all kinds of temptations. It is up to the parents to control the child's diet and teach the child properly to be self-disciplined--that is not the food manufacturer's or the advertiser's job.

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