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Sneaky Commercials: The Unconscious Way TV Makes You Eat

TV makes you fat

TV makes you fat. No news in that statement. Couch potatoes lay around watching the tube rather than exercising. In addition, commercials may lead you to buy and use particular products that are bad for you. Recently, however, John Bargh and his colleagues found that TV commercials have a much more invidious influence on your behavior. Sneaky commercials make you eat without your awareness.

John Bargh is an expert at priming behaviors. In research in the 1990s, he primed people with stereotypes about the elderly, sent them down the hall to another room, and found that they walked more slowly. He primed people with ideas about rudeness and found they were much more likely to interrupt the experimenter. In post-experiment discussions, participants saw no connection between the priming and their behavior. The ideas influences them without their awareness.

Last year, Bargh turned his attention to the effects of junk food commercials. Harris, Bargh, and Brownell studied the effects of TV food commercials in two experiments. In one study, they looked at the effects on children watching a cartoon and in the other they looked at the effects on adults watching a comedy show. For their experimental manipulation, Bargh and colleagues varied the content of ads shown in the commercials breaks. The children and adults either saw ads promoting junk food or ads with non-food products. For the children, snack foods were available while they watched the cartoon. The adults tasted and rated various foods after watching the show in an apparently unrelated study.

Both the children and the adults ate more if they watched the shows with the junk food ads. The food they ate, however, was not the food being advertised! The ads simply primed eating, not eating the advertised junk foods.

In the adult study, Bargh and his colleagues included an additional control condition: some people saw nutritional food ads. These food ads did not lead to additional eating. In addition, Bargh and colleagues found that restrained eaters (that is, people dieting or working to limit food intake) were the most likely to be influenced by the ads! The ads were most effective on people who were trying the hardest to not be influenced. Ouch.

Junk food commercials caused children and adults to eat. Not to eat the particular products advertised, but simply to eat whatever was available. The effect of junk food ads is not simply brand preference: An ad for M&Ms did not cause people to go search for M&MS. The junk food ads just caused people to eat whatever was available.

The sneaky and unconscious part is that people were not aware that the ads had influenced them. When the adults were asked why they were eating, they typically reported they were just hungry. As with Bargh's other research, people were not aware that their behaviors had been primed by their recent experiences. People were eating without awareness that the ads were causing them to eat.

One possible mechanism is that the pleasure associated with eating presented in the ads primed eating behaviors in general. Thus even if people do not remember which products were advertised, the ads will affect their behavior. In my previous blog, I argued that beer ads are often a failure because people can't remember which brand of beer was advertised (or at least I can't, see Beer, Humor, and Memory). But what if that isn't the goal? What if the goal is sneakier? What if the goal is simply more beer consumption? In that case, the ad may be effective. People watching those ads may drink more. Junk food and beer ads may increase consumption. The particular product then gets its regular share of that additional consumption. The ad may be effective even when not remembered.

Bargh and his colleagues argued that the best defense against these sneaky ads is awareness. When you are aware of the effects, ads may be less likely to get you. Unfortunately, awareness requires controlled cognitive resources that may be limited when people are tired—for example, when watching prime time TV after a long day at work or school. I think the best defense may be avoidance. Use TiVo to delete commercials. Better yet, turn off your TV. Since snack food commercials make you eat, avoid them.

Is there anything to eat around here?