Slick Super Bowl ads don’t emphasize the junk in junk food

Thanks to pregame hype and Hollywood-quality production values, Super Bowl commercials have become the main attraction for many viewers. But are these blockbuster ads bad for our waistlines?

Food and beverage companies accounted for roughly one-third of the ads that appeared during Sunday’s game, according to Advertising Age. (Car companies took up the other one-third or so, with the remainder split among websites, film studios, and retail chains.) Viewers and partygoers — including millions of children — saw ads from Doritos, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Snickers, and Budweiser, according to the Health News website.

In other words, a high proportion of ads are pitching soda, snacks, and other junk foods loaded with calories, sugar, sodium, and fat.

“Studies show [that] if you see an ad for a product and try it for the first time, you like it more than if you didn’t see the ad,” said Jennifer Harris, PhD, the director of marketing initiatives at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, in New Haven, Conn. “It really is shaping our preferences as well as triggering us to eat more.”

Humor, suspense, and sexy people digging into supersize bags of Doritos have become a staple of Super Bowl commercials. It’s the oldest trick in the book: Make a product or brand attractive and appealing by surrounding it with attractive and appealing stuff.

It’s tempting to believe that this strategy won’t work on you. In the real world, nearly everyone recognizes that people who consume a lot of soda, junk food, and beer are often overweight and unhealthy — not exactly what’s depicted on-screen. And yet we give in to the ploy.

“We know the effects of excessive snacks are quite adverse to people’s health. If you drink a lot of beer, you aren’t going to get all the attractive women,” said Frederick J. Zimmerman, PhD, an economist and professor of health services at the UCLA School of Public Health. “That may seem obvious, but those images work on us on a subconscious level.”

Zimmerman believes the true culprit behind the obesity epidemic isn’t high-fructose corn syrup, sodium, or saturated fat, per se, but rather the ubiquitous marketing that makes foods containing those ingredients appealing to Americans.

In his research on the health effects of television on children (and more recently adults), Zimmerman found that the number of commercials people see is more closely linked to the risk of being overweight or obese than the total time they spend watching TV.

And the subconscious impact of Super Bowl ads might be even greater than that of everyday commercials, because the ads are part of the entertainment, Harris said.

“If you see a commercial trying to give you information, you know exactly what it’s doing,” she said. “But if you’re just being entertained, you’re not looking at it in that same way, which is probably what makes it more effective.”


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