Re-Thinking the Way We Market Food

Coke Ad 2013Of the food and beverage commercials that aired during the Superbowl this past weekend, I couldn’t help but notice advertisements for Coke, Pepsi, Oreo cookies, Doritos, M&Ms, Taco Bell, Subway, Budweiser, Bud Light, and Beck’s Sapphire. While it’s no surprise to see advertisements for junk food on TV, what’s bothersome is that over 160 million people tuned into the Superbowl to either consciously or subconsciously be reminded to purchase things like soda, candy, and chocolate, when in my opinion, time would be much better spent on bringing awareness to healthier food options and products that are truly worth learning about.

With that being said, it’s not that I have anything against Coke, Pepsi, or Oreos. It’s just, when taken together collectively, it certainly makes a statement about our culture, doesn’t it?

We Are What We Market

When I think of the brand Coca-Cola, which in 2012 was rated the #1 Global Brand by Interbrand’s “2012 Best Global Brand” survey, I am reminded of the movie Idiocracy. In 1923, Coca-Cola’s mission statement was to “always be within an arm’s reach of desire.” Today their original vision has essentially played out to become a reality as Coke is now available in literally every restaurant, school system, vending machine, grocery store, and country. In 2009, the U.S. alone consumed 7.3 billion gallons of soda, and as of 2012 per person consumption of soda averaged 24.1 gallons per person. Check out this piece on the “21 Most Soda Crazed Countries.

In Idiocracy, the basic premise is that a couple of Americans are selected by the Pentagon for a top-secret hibernation program, and are then awakened 500 years into the future to find a society that’s completely dumbed down and overrun by corporate interests. The main characters find that the American government is watering the nation’s crops with a Gatorade-like substance (Brawndo), all because the parent corporation that owned the drink happened to purchase not only the US Food and Drug Administration, but the Federal Trade Commission. And when water was suggested as a replacement by the “smartest man alive” without visibly improving the crops, Brawndo’s stock dropped to zero and computers automatically laid off half the population, causing mass riots. Did you know Coca-Cola has nearly 150,000 employees?

The Practice of Marketing Food and Beverage Products in America

It’s no secret that the way companies market food products to people is controversial, specifically when it comes to marketing food to children: which is where it all starts. The below video does a nice job of highlighting some of the key issues with the way companies market food to children and it should make you think twice about this seemingly innocuous practice. You can catch the complete clip here:

An advertising executive hits on the crux of the issue when in this clip when he states:

You are absolutely correct that I am not going to get the same return on investment for a client as advertising spinach to a kid, as advertising some of the so called less healthy products to kids. Guilty as charged.

A few minutes later, he goes on to blame parents (and not the TV ads) for what children are eating today. He states:

More often than not, children who nag their parents to buy them any kind of product, are children and parents and whom the relationship is fundamentally flawed … I think that there is a parental advocation of responsibility and limits of what is appropriate for their kids.

However, research has proven that it’s the actually the other way around, as was highlighted in this recent Salon.com article entitled “7 Disturbing Trends in Junk Food Advertising for Children” (specifically the section entitled “The ads, not the TV, are what’s making kids fat”).

Advertising’s Link to Obesity

According to the above-referenced article, kids experience at least $1.6 billion worth of food advertising a year, with the vast majority of the ads geared toward pushing high-calorie and low-nutrition snacks down kids’ throat. A report also stated that “it can be concluded that television advertising influences children to prefer and request high-calorie and low-nutrient foods and beverages.”

The other night I caught a portion of Lisa Ling’s “Our America,” which focused on Generation XXL and what is causing obesity in America. While she didn’t cite television ads as a specific culprit, Ling did uncover that cultural habits, the school system, and lower-incomes played into part of the overall issue. Could it be that we’re now living in an age that is coming to terms with the effects of a few generations’ worth of advertising, that these beliefs about what should constitute a “typical American diet” have now become thoroughly ingrained in our culture?

In the episode, I was surprised to see that the food options available for lunch at the schools of the children Ling visited with offered such exclusive options as hot dogs, French fries, chocolate milk, candy bars, and sodas. Was it really this bad when I was in school?

Advertising’s Link to Behavior

When I was an undergraduate, I learned about the ways that culture tends to mirror television programming, and specifically, how advertising affects people’s behavior. You can find a nice overview of this type of research from the Council for Research in Values and Philosophy web site, here. In reference to the effects of television watching, the below excerpt states:

For each viewer or hearer it is a private and intimate event between the communicator and the individual. For this reason I call this an event of “privatized consciousness.” Because of its privatized nature, public mass communications avoid public scrutiny. The television is as familiar to the family as the family pet; it’s taken for granted. At the same time it is the reflector or mirror of the most powerful commercial interests of our culture … The dominant story and vision of the mass media mirror is not moral action, but consumer action. The intent of a commercial is not to encourage you to be a moral agent. Its objective is to penetrate any sense of order or resistance you might have to the message.

Because advertising plays such a powerful role in influencing the thoughts and behaviors of a society, don’t you think it’s important to think twice about the products we’re pushing, the messages we’re amplifying, the lessons we’re responsible for teaching as marketers?

Conclusion

Many people were angry when New York mayor Bloomberg recently proposed to limit the size of sugary soft drinks sold in restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums and arenas to no more than 16 ounces. As can be expected, industry groups including the American Beverage Association asked a judge to strike down the proposed ban on the sale of large servings of soda, calling it an unfair burden on small businesses. No matter where you stand on these issues, it’s important to remember that marketing can play a powerful role in society, and as marketers we should be slightly more conscious of the effects of the products and brands we put such hard work into promoting.

Now it’s your turn: what are your thoughts on the way we advertise food in America? What is your opinion on the Superbowl commercials?

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