Learn, eat, repeat: how food advertising works

By Sophie Waldron 
Edited By Jonathan

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You woke up late and ate breakfast late. Thing is, now it’s noon and you are hungry again. How can you be hungry when you only ate an hour ago?

When interacting with our environment, we form associations between items that occur together. This occurs with food, for example if we always eat lunch at 12pm, we will associate that time with food.

What is more, feelings and responses associated with one item can be linked to another by association. The feeling of hunger that is linked to food can become associated with 12pm, so that the time seems to be making you hungry independent of whether you are about to eat or not!

This kind of learning by association is Pavlovian conditioning, discovered by the Russian doctor Ivan Pavlov (hence the name)! He was attempting to study dog’s digestion by measuring their saliva, when he discovered that they would salivate not only to food, but to other stimuli associated with food, such as the experimenter’s footsteps.

Pavlovian conditioning is a gift to advertisers. It provides an avenue to create thoughts or feelings towards a product by associating it with other relevant things. It’s what Coca-Cola are trying to do by sponsoring sporting events – they are hoping that by associating Coke with sports, people will think of it as healthy. Predominantly advertisers attempt to create good feeling towards their products by associating them with stuff their audience likes. They sell Walker’s crisps by associating them with football, new chocolate bars by associating them with old chocolate bars, and even try to sell Pepsi by linking it to Kendall Jenner and social justice movements!

…perhaps think twice about that last one!

It is likely that these associations take charge of our preferences from an early age. We live in an environment teeming with food advertising! A recent study asked 4-6 year old children which of two identical food items they would rather eat, one in plain packaging and one in packaging with a fast food logo. Children overwhelmingly chose the packet with the logo on, despite no differences to how the food inside looks or smells (Robinson et al 2010).

This likely reflects the fact that because of associations between the logo and other pleasant things, established by advertising, children see the food inside as inherently better. The age of the children points to how associations like these form early on in life, and likely determine food choices for many years to come. This learning could contribute to why changing eating behaviour is so hard, as learnt associations have to be revised.

How do these associations influence our behaviour? Pavlovian conditioning only describes the formation of associations between two items, so we must invoke another form of learning if we are to understand how advertising can change which foods we act to obtain. This is instrumental learning, which describes how if a behaviour leads to something pleasant (like tasty food) it is likely to be repeated. My mum used to employ this tactic to stop me being naughty as a child. If I didn’t throw a tantrum the whole way round the supermarket, I got a chocolate cookie.

Pavlovian and instrumental learning interact to influence our actions. Specifically, Pavlovian associations can override and shape learnt behaviours. Watson and colleagues (2014) demonstrated this using a laboratory based computer task. Participants first learned instrumentally that pressing one key got them a piece of chocolate, and another key delivered popcorn. They also learned associations between chocolate and a striped pattern and popcorn and a checked pattern.

Participants then ate lots of chocolate or popcorn. This wasn’t just for fun, the idea was that if a participant eats lots of chocolate they will want to eat it less in future, so not act to obtain it. This was true, participants who had gorged on chocolate pressed on the key associated with chocolate less in the next round of the experiment. These participants were then presented with one of the pictures Pavlovian-associated with chocolate. Experimenters found that even if a participant did not usually want to act to obtain chocolate, when presented with an image associated with chocolate they would press the key to get it!

Think about this in a real world setting. This means that even if we are completely full and don’t want to eat, if we see an advert for pizza on the TV we may quickly find ourselves on the deliveroo website. Furthermore our behaviour may be swayed even by seeing things which are not food, but which are associated with food through advertising. Seeing Gary Lineker’s face might make us reach for a packet of crisps even if we don’t really fancy them. This means that food adverts can control not only what we like to eat, but also tip us towards eating when we do not want to.

Association formation surrounding food is not specific to advertisement. When we interact with an environment in which food is only presented in certain situations, associations (both Pavlovian and instrumental) will form. Going back to the kitchen in the house you grew up in can make you crave cherished childhood foods – fish fingers and smiley faces anyone? It also works the other way round, how often has a certain flavour evoked in you a memory.

This fundamental mechanism just transfers particularly well to advertising. Associations can make us like certain foods in the first place, and also control when and how often we eat them.

Article coming soon: Learning to make healthier food choices.

References

Robinson, T. N., Borzekowski, D. L. G., Matheson, D. M., & Kraemer, H. C. (2007). Effects of fast food branding on young children’s taste preferences. Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, 161(8), 792e797.

Watson, P., Wiers, R. W., Hommel, B., & Wit, S. (2014). Working for food you dont desire. Cues interfere with goal-directed food-seeking. Appetite, 0195-6663.

 

 

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