How Fast Food Advertisements Get Under Your Skin, Whether You Realize It Or Not

For years, academics across the world have studied the effects fast food advertising has had on children and adolescents. With nearly 1-in-5 school-aged children in the United States qualifying as obese, these studies aim to figure out how TV commercials, product placement and the new frontier of digital marketing are leading to unhealthy lifestyles.

But let’s say you watch a commercial for a Big Mac. Do you immediately drive to McDonald’s and order the 563-calorie bomb? Not necessarily. However, fast food marketing seeps into your brain in a way you may not realize.

At the University of Michigan, associate professor Ashley Gearhardt runs The Food and Addiction Science and Treatment (FAST) lab, a simulated fast food restaurant that uses neuroimaging to study this sort of stimuli. She’s currently conducting a study on 180 teenagers and what happens in the striatum—the reward section of the brain—while viewing the ads, and how the ads can get “under the skin.” She showed teens three kinds of commercials: unhealthy fast food, healthier fast food and a control commercial for cell phones.

“[Fast food ads are] primed for you to be motivated to seek out ultra processed foods. So you’ll start scrounging around in your kitchen and you might not even make the link between what you’ve seen on the TV and why you suddenly have a hankering for food.”

– Ashley Gearhardt of The Food and Addiction Science and Treatment lab

“When teenagers are seeing fast food commercials, it really seems to be activating reward centers of the brain more effectively than other types of advertisements,” Gearhardt told HuffPost about her preliminary findings (a published paper is forthcoming). “The teenagers that are showing this greatest reward activation of the brain seem to be at greater risk in gaining weight over time. It’s hard for people to defend against because it’s not a conscious process.”

She further explained that seeing something like a Big Mac on the screen doesn’t make you crave one—it makes you want everything in that category, and it’s happening on a biological level.

“That whole system is primed for you to be motivated to seek out ultra processed foods,” she said. “So you’ll start scrounging around in your kitchen, and you might not even make the link between what you’ve seen on the TV and why you suddenly have a hankering for food. It’s not actually about needing calories; it’s about desiring the reward of the food.”

It’s complicated to pinpoint a direct link to ads and obesity—other factors such as genes and your eating habits affect the outcome—but Emma Boyland, a psychology lecturer at the University of Liverpool, co-authored a paper in 2018 entitled “Sustained impact of energy-dense TV and online food advertising on children’s dietary intake: a within-subject, randomised, crossover, counter-balanced trial.” Kids aged 7 to 12 years old in that study watched advergames (Internet-based video games featuring branding) and TV advertisements.

Echoing some of Gearhardt’s findings, Boyland told HuffPost, “We do have evidence that exposure to unhealthy food and beverage marketing increases food consumption in children, and that they do not compensate for this increased consumption by eating less at the next meal.”

Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at the University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, and her team constantly publish papers on the correlation between fast food marketing and childhood obesity. Like Gearhardt, she thinks teenagers are especially vulnerable to junk food ads, more so than children 12 and under.

“Teenagers don’t have well-developed cognitive control mechanisms,” Harris told HuffPost. “Their frontal cortex doesn’t develop until the early 20s, so they’re very impulsive.”

Tack on peer pressure, that they’re hyper reward-oriented, that no protections exist for them and the fact they have access to money, teenagers are fast food companies’ ideal demographic. However, Rudd published a studied in January 2019 on how fast food companies have increased their targeting to black and Hispanic communities, an already susceptible-to-obesity demographic. “From a public health perspective, they’re the last consumers you want to be pushing fast food, soda and candy to,” Harris said.

This KFC ad in London proves that you don’t have to watch TV to be exposed to fast food advertisements.

Advertising is everywhere, even if you don’t realize it

Children and teens are watching less TV than they used to, but Gearhardt and Harris both said kids are still exposed to 9 to 10 fast food ads every day, and that doesn’t include unquantifiable ads on social media, “educational” YouTube clips that teach young kids colors using M&Ms and Coke bottles, and product placement, which is more subliminal than TV commercials.

The most famous example of product placement is Reese’s Pieces in “E.T.” (supposedly, sales jumped 65 percent). Placements can be found in “Mac and Me” (the bulk of the film takes place in McDonald’s), “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (Domino’s), “Superman II” (Coke and Marlboro), “Little Nicky” (Popeyes) and “Wayne’s World,” which hilariously spoofed product placement. A 2018 study researched brand retention in showing people traditional commercials and spots with product placement. “These comparisons indicate the superiority of product placement—brands presented in this manner were more frequently recalled by viewers,” the study discovered.

“If one company decides to do the right thing, then it’s going to hurt their business if their competitors don’t [follow suit]. That’s why consumers have to demand that they stop marketing the worst products to children and communities of color.”

– Jennifer Harris, director of marketing initiatives at University of Connecticut’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity

Currently, social media is understudied, but Boyland and four other academics just published a paper on “The impact of social media influencer marketing of foods (healthy and unhealthy) on children’s food intake.” The study had 176 children from the ages of 9 to 11 years old watch Instagram and YouTube influencers eat snacks. “Children who viewed influencers with unhealthy snacks had significantly increased overall intake compared with children who viewed influencers with non-food products,” the paper reads. “Viewing influencers with healthy snacks did not significantly affect intake.”

“The ability to target individuals most likely to respond to the marketing and to expose them to the content at vulnerable moments when they are most likely to respond is what sets digital apart as, if anything, being a more powerful influence than TV,” Boyland said.

Here’s how to check ourselves (and our kids)

So, what can be done to combat nefarious Big Fast Food? Gearhardt suggests having your kids view programming on non-commercial platforms, such as Netflix.

Boyland thinks it’s the state’s responsibility to patrol advertisements and protect children. “It must be an issue for policymakers to reduce the power of the food industry to manipulate its citizens rather than relying on those citizens defending themselves,” she said.

In the U.K., Ofcom regulates television, radio, telecommunications and wireless communications services and sets standards for television advertising. Policies in reducing fast food ads during children’s programming have been effective, and Boyland said the government is considering banning unhealthy ads before 9 p.m.

Long before Harris received her Ph.D, she worked on the other side of the fence, in marketing. Because of that, she takes a more pessimistic stance.

“Companies can’t do anything unless they’re forced to,” she said. “Because if one company decides to do the right thing, then it’s going to hurt their business if their competitors don’t. That’s why consumers have to demand that they stop marketing the worst products to children and communities of color. The public opinion has to start turning and people will have to start making these companies responsible for what they’re doing.”

Even though people know fast food is bad for them—similar to the cigarette epidemic—they’ll continue to eat Big Macs and its ilk.

“With food companies, people love these products,” Harris said. “There are strong emotional associations that have been created through advertisements and other means. Children recognize brands and logos by the time they’re 2 years old. It’s very powerful, and once those emotional attachments are established, they’re very difficult to get rid of.”