Sweet nothings: candy, cereal, advertising

A One Big Happy strip from 1/4/16:


Ruthie gets this information from tv advertising, no doubt.

That’s candy. Then there’s cereal, marketed to both kids and adults. From “Selling Sweet Nothings: Science Shows Food Marketing’s Effects on Children’s Minds — and Appetites” by Mariko Hewer, in Observer (Association for Psychological Science) 27.10.14-18 (December 2014), beginning:

In the 1960s and ’70s, the prime time to advertise food to children was on Saturday mornings, when they perched themselves in front of the TV to watch cartoons. Today, with kids’ programming available almost continuously, children are bombarded with daily doses of food-related advertising. According to a 2013 study by Lisa M. Powell, as cited by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, “In 2011, children ages 2 to 11 saw about a dozen television ads each day for products typically high in saturated fat, sugar, or sodium.”

Approximately 33% of American children and adolescents ages 6–19 are considered overweight or obese, according to data from the 2009–2010 Centers for Disease Control National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. To make matters worse, food marketers seem to have figured out how to effectively target this exact demographic by advertising directly to children (think of the cartoon characters on cereal boxes). According to a 2006 study by the National Academy of Science’s Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth, the advertisers spend more than $10 billion per year marketing directly to children, promoting many foods high in calories, sugar, salt, and fat and low in nutrients key to children’s development. The committee found strong evidence that television advertising in particular affects the food and beverage preferences of children ages 2–11.

And research suggests that children, specifically those who are overweight or obese, are especially affected by food packaging and advertising. Psychological scientists who have been ramping up research on the subject are addressing key questions about what appeals to these children — and how we can help them stay healthy.

… Fooling Parents: Since adults hold the purse strings, food advertisers work hard to cater to them, too. Although parents might think they’re more capable of making healthy choices than their children, they are still prone to misleading marketing tactics.

Temple Northup (University of Houston) conducted a 2014 study showing that loading food labels with words implying healthiness — such as “whole grain,” “antioxidant,” or “organic” — can instill in consumers the belief that those foods are healthier than products lacking such descriptors, even if that isn’t the case.

A bowl of Kellogg’s Froot Loops:


Wikipedia on Kellogg’s Froot Loops:

The cereal pieces are ring-shaped (hence “loops”) and come in a variety of bright colors and a blend of fruit flavors (hence “fruit”). However, there is no actual fruit in Froot Loops, they are only one flavor. … Kellogg’s introduced Fruit Loops in September 1962. Originally, there were red, orange, and yellow loops, but green, purple, and blue were added during the 1990s


… Toucan Sam has been the mascot of Fruit Loops since its introduction. Toucan Sam is a blue anthropomorphic toucan; the colors of his bill correspond to the three original froot loop colors. While most toucans have sense of smell, he is portrayed to have the ability to smell out Fruit Loops from great distances and invariably locates a concealed bowl of the cereal while intoning, “Follow my nose! For the fruity taste that shows!” or “Follow my nose! It always knows!” The mascot for Fruit Loops in Canada was a turtle named Pop Top.

Then from the Kellogg’s site:

Just for Parents:
Add some colorful, fruity fun to the morning when you enjoy a balanced breakfast with a delicious bowl of Froot Loops® cereal.
NUTRITION: A serving of cereal and milk:
Provides important protein and grains
Provides the fiber and whole grains your kids need
Helps refuel your body and brain
Helps kick start your metabolism

Now back to the Temple Northrup study as reported in Observer:

To test this theory [that loading food labels with words implying healthfulness biases consumers to believe that these foods are healthier than others], the researcher created an online survey that showed 318 study participants two versions of photographs depicting various foods and drinks: the original version with a “healthy” food label, and a version with the healthy word Photoshopped out.

These examples included Chef Boyardee Beefaroni (“Whole Grain”), Chocolate Cheerios (“Heart Healthy”), and Cherry 7-Up (“Antioxidant”). After participants had seen both photos, Northup asked them which they thought was healthier; across the board, the viewers rated the original (e.g., “healthier”) version as better for them.

“Words like ‘organic,’ ‘antioxidant,’ ‘natural,’ and ‘gluten-free’ imply some sort of healthy benefit,” wrote Northup. “When people stop to think about it, there’s nothing healthy about Antioxidant Cherry 7-Up — it’s mostly filled with high fructose syrup or sugar. But its name is giving you this clue that there is some sort of health benefit to something that is not healthy at all.”

… Turning the Tables: A team of researchers may have discovered a way to encourage children to eat more healthily. Brian Wansink and David Just (Cornell University), Collin Payne (New Mexico State University), and high school student Matthew Klinger conducted two studies in 2012 to see whether advertising healthy foods using more appealing names would prompt children to eat more of them.

In the first study, Wansink and colleagues added carrots to the lunch menus of five schools, testing 147 students ages 8–11 for 3 consecutive days. On the first and last days, the carrots were simply included on the menus with no extra information; on the middle day, they were billed as either “X-ray Vision Carrots” or “Food of the Day.” The researchers found that, although the amount of carrots the children selected remained constant, the amount they actually consumed changed drastically. Kids ate 32% of the “Food of the Day”-labeled carrots, 35% of the unnamed carrots — and 66% of the “X-ray Vision Carrots.”

In the second study, the authors again used the moniker “X-ray Vision Carrots,” billed broccoli as “Power Punch Broccoli” and “Tiny Tasty Tree Tops,” and dubbed green beans “Silly Dilly Green Beans,” this time examining food sales to 1,552 students in two schools over 2 months. Although both schools’ lunch menus referred to the vegetables by their usual names for the first month, one school switched to the more enticing names for the second month. The results were extreme: In the experimental school, sales of the vegetables increased 99%, while in the control school, sales declined 16%.

Exposing cereal marketing strategies and then claiming that they do in fact influence the behavior of both kids and their parents is not new; see the eloquent treatment in Michael Geis’s The Language of Television Advertising (Academic Press, 1982) (also in his The Language of Politics (Springer, 1987)). What’s new in the Observer piece is that people have set out to test the claims experimentally and then to test the efficacy of counter-strategies.

(In a separate posting, I’ll take up locker loops on men’s dress shirts, also known as fruit loops.)

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