Can marketing muscle make us lean?

Can marketing muscle make us lean?

The waistlines of the West are getting larger, with increasing numbers of people in the US, UK and Australasia described as clinically obese. There is a consensus that environmental cues, which include food marketing, play a key role in our eating habits. Dr Suzanna Forwood and Professor Theresa Marteau explain how labelling food as healthy may have unintended consequences

MARKETING methods are broad and include advertising as well as ‘below the line’ activity, such as how a product is labelled, portioned and pitched to a particular eating event. They also encompass how it is priced, promoted and placed within the retail environment. This article focuses on just one aspect of marketing: how a product is labelled and the influence this has on our subsequent food behaviour – something that psychology can help us to understand.

Our eating behaviours, sensitive as they are to environmental cues, are likely to be readily influenced by marketing efforts. It should be noted, though, that much of the data needed to study these effects systematically is held within the food industry, making progress in this field challenging.

Studies show that individuals will eat more when watching a programme that includes food ads – not specifically those foods that are advertised, but rather a similar class of food. So while the brand in question may not always see changes in sales, the viewer of the ads may see changes in their waistline.

Very recent evidence has shown that physiological responses to food can be quite dramatically affected by how a food is labelled. Drinking a milkshake labelled as ‘indulgent’ and high in calories causes a larger fall in ghrelin, the gut hormone signalling hunger, than consuming a milkshake labelled as ‘sensible’ and low in calories. This finding is all the more remarkable because the actual milkshake consumed had the same number of calories for all participants in the study – the only difference was the label. Thus our impression of a food as portrayed on its label can alter our hormonal response to the food as well as our behaviour.

So if marketing is contributing to our obesity problems, how does it fit as part of a solution? Recent research can give us some insights into the nature of the problem and potential solutions, from stricter regulation of food marketing to positive action that the industry could take.


One option is to regulate marketing of foods more closely. Bearing in mind the central, pervasive and wide-ranging role of food in human culture, an outright ban on all food marketing would be politically, economically and socially unpalatable, not to say impractical. But there might be mileage in more circumscribed regulation of specific food marketing activity.

Some examples of increased regulation of marketing are already in use. These include limits to marketing of certain products, for example the recent banning in the UK of ‘junk food’ advertisements during television programmes targeted at children. Evidence from Ofcom has shown that this ban has successfully reduced the exposure of children to ads for foods that are high in fat, salt or sugar.

A study of a similar ban on television advertising aimed at children in Quebec assessed the behavioural impact by comparing food purchases in Frenchspeaking families with English-speaking families, where US television channels with adverts were still being watched. This again provided some evidence that such bans can reduce the consumption of high-sugar children’s cereal.


The provision of information to the consumer is often seen as a legitimate means of attempting to alter choices, particularly when trying to reduce consumption of a product for which there is strong evidence of adverse consequences from its consumption.

A graphic example of this is the health warnings seen on cigarette packets. There is laboratory evidence to suggest that pairing food with similarly graphic illustrations of the negative consequences of obesity could alter responses to high-fat foods as well. In psychological terms, the mechanism is very simple: the food is associated with a strong negative emotion – the negative health consequences of obesity – which is then brought to mind each time the food is seen, thereby altering subsequent food choices away from unhealthy options and towards alternatives.

Graphic images similar to those seen on cigarette packages are unlikely to be seen any time soon on foods high in fat, salt or sugar (though the Department of Health tried something close during the Change4Life campaign in 2009), but other statutory and voluntary health labelling is on the increase. Traffic lights – labels that visually signal low, moderate or high levels of fat, sugar and salt in foods – are increasingly seen on food packaging as a voluntary measure taken by the industry. It is again hoped that these will change purchasing and consumption by giving consumers information in order to make healthy decisions.

These may also work at an associative level since the wider cultural significance of a red stop signal may be important in making these labelling strategies effective. The jury, however, is still out on whether, and when, traffic light labelling does shift purchasing and consumption in a healthy direction.

An alternative to the use of these negative signals for ‘bad’ food is using positive signals to encourage the choice of ‘good’ foods. Can associating healthy food with positive emotion improve the health profile of our food choices? While the negative signals are the domain of legislators and regulators, associating products with positive emotion is the everyday business of the food marketing industry, and it makes a good deal of sense to harness their behaviour-change expertise to improve our collective diet.

Pairing high fat food with graphic illustrations of the negative consequences of obesity could alter responses to these foods

Remarkably little scientific research has been devoted to the use of positive emotional signals, though we plan to explicitly test the relative effectiveness of positive signals attracting us towards good foods, versus negative signals deterring us from bad foods, in some of our future experiments.

One rather touching study suggests what those positive signals might be, and that they could be very effective. Any parent with ambitions to see their child eat well will appreciate the challenge of feeding them vegetables.

This study succeeded in getting a group of pre-school children to eat more chickpeas, edamame beans and lentils by telling the children that the food was something fun (‘roly-poly poppers’, ‘emerald dragon bites’ or ‘teddy bear’s porridge’) rather than something healthy (‘nutrition bits’, ‘veggie beans’ or ‘healthy stew’). And once the children have tried the foods ten times, other studies have shown that even initially unpalatable vegetables can become liked.

The use of fun names is an ancient strategy to make everyday food more appealing. Think of toad-in-the-hole, bubble-and-squeak, roly-poly pudding or spotted dick, and the Italian names for pasta shapes, such as ‘butterflies’ (farfalle), ‘spindles’ (fusilli), ‘little worms’ (vermicelli) and ‘little string’ (spaghetti).

It is a strategy not lost on the food industry, with fun brand names being ubiquitous. And even among healthier foods, brands that don’t take themselves too seriously (such as Innocent) will gain appeal from being perceived as fun.

Would such a strategy really work to increase consumption of healthier foods? The conventional wisdom is that foods high in fat, salt and sugar are inherently more palatable than healthier alternatives. But there is little evidence to support this notion. In fact, a recent study asking people to rate the appeal and desirability of a very large set of images of ready-toeat foods taken from the internet shows that fruits are rated as more appealing and desirable to eat than any of the other food categories (including snack foods, mixed dishes and dairy foods).

From a neurobiological perspective, a food will be judged on its combined sensory properties, so a food low in salt will always pack a smaller punch than an identical product that is higher in salt. It is simply a weaker sensory experience.

But there are other sensory properties to a food, independent of fat, salt and sugar content, which may also have a bearing on its appeal. Fruits, for instance, have a wide range of intense sensory attributes – bright colours, acid flavours and very distinctive textural qualities, including crunchy, juicy and smooth, may explain their high appeal despite the absence of fat and salt.

So why are efforts to promote healthy foods often so ineffective? One possibility is that marketers favour the use of health as a primary message when promoting healthier foods. The psychological research would suggest that they may be doing this at some cost.


Labelling that signals ‘healthiness’ is now a pervasive part of our food environment, with ‘healthy-living’, ‘diet’ and ‘low-fat’ product lines being the mainstream in all food retail outlets. This is another example of a situation where the provision of information to the consumer is seen as advantageous – the consumer has the choice between a standard and healthier equivalent product.

But there is growing evidence of the paradoxical effects of ‘healthy’ food labels. For instance, in several studies, individuals ate more calories when a food was labelled ‘low-fat’ as opposed to ‘regular’, and failed to be aware of this extra intake. These effects are particularly marked in those who are overweight. One of the mechanisms involved is guilt-reduction, guilt being an emotion that constrains eating, particularly in those who are overweight.

Perceived progress towards a healthy eating goal is another psychological process that influences the food we eat. Merely considering a healthier item on a food menu can leave a person feeling they have achieved a healthy eating goal without needing to choose it, instead having the perverse effect of increasing the chance that an indulgent item is selected. This is particularly the case for individuals with high self-control, who are less likely to choose the indulgent item when the healthier option is not present, but much more prone to choosing it when the healthy item is present.

Another demonstration of the effect of perceived progress towards a healthy eating goal occurs when individuals are asked to sample a food. Those told that they were tasting a “new health bar containing high levels of protein, vitamins and fibre, and no artificial sweeteners” tended to report more hunger after eating the sample than those told that they were tasting a “chocolate bar that is very tasty and yummy with a chocolate raspberry core”.

Eating foods labelled as healthy or low fat can leave us feeling more hungry than eating the same foods without this label

Paradoxically, the ‘health bar’ group also reported more hunger than another group who were merely asked to have a look at the snack bar and not eat any. Sampling a ‘health’ food can make you hungrier than not eating anything. These effects may be due to the impact of the labels on physiological processes such as ghrelin, as well as emotional processes such as guilt reduction.

We know that taste is the primary purchasing criterion for food in high income countries. It has also been shown that among North Americans, the less healthy an item is portrayed to be, the better is its inferred taste, the more it is enjoyed during actual consumption, and the more likely it is to be selected in choice tasks. So by making health the primary attribute of a food, marketers may actually be making a food product less appealing.

Finally, the meanings evoked by the same food differ between people. Not surprisingly, all dieters associate an apple with a weight loss goal. Intriguingly, successful dieters view the apple as fulfilling a tasty eating goal as well as a healthy eating goal. So learning to associate apples (and indeed other nutritious foods) with taste might be more potent for weight loss than learning to eat apples (and other nutritious foods) to fulfil a weight loss goal.


The fundamental answer to the obesity epidemic is for people to eat fewer calories. If marketing serves the corporate purpose of driving up sales, there is a compelling logic that it must be driving up consumption, so a ban on all food marketing could be what we need. But in the absence of such a ban, there is much room for marketing to contribute to a solution to obesity.

Acknowledging the power of food marketing would be a useful start – the evidence for the role of marketing is, however, largely held within the industry, and is not available for wider scientific or public discussion.

Research from the behavioural and neurological sciences has explored many existing and potential strategies to help individuals lose weight or avoid weight gain, indicating less and more promising approaches. The use of ‘diet’ formulations of standard products, labelled to signal the health-promoting or weight-loss potential of the food, is a dominant strategy in the food industry.

While this looks helpful to both the consumer and the policy maker, the scientific evidence suggests that it is unlikely to contribute much to preventing or reducing obesity – and may actually make matters worse.

A more fruitful direction that is supported by the evidence, and is being practised by a minority in the food industry, is to promote intrinsically healthy foods as fun and tasty, with any health claims being secondary. Products promoted in this way also have potential appeal beyond ‘weight loss’ consumers – another point in their favour.

Making nutritious food fun, tasty, appealing and fundamentally mainstream is something the food industry can do to take a step in the right direction to reducing our waistlines.

This article featured in Market Leader, July 2012.

Dr Suzanna Forwood is research associate, and Professor Theresa Marteau is director, at the Behaviour and Health Research Unit of the Institute for Public Health

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