Snack Ads Spur Children to Eat More

Children watching TV
July 19, 2009

Research by Harris, Bargh, and Brownell featured in The New York Times

Psychologists recognize that certain behaviors can be automatic. For example, unrecognized external stimuli can unconsciously stir us to anger, spur us to loyalty or incite us to rudeness without our knowing it. A new study finds that seeing food ads on television can induce people to eat more snacks while watching.

In one experiment, conducted by researchers from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, 118 children, ages 7 to 11, were each given bowls of Goldfish crackers and then left to watch a 14-minute cartoon. During the commercial breaks, some of the children saw ads for games and entertainment; others watched four spots for unhealthy snacks like waffle sticks with syrup, fruit roll-ups and potato chips. The children who saw the food spots ate 45 percent more Goldfish than those who watched the game commercials.

According to the authors, the experiment suggests “a direct causal link between food advertising and greater snack consumption.”

That runs counter to the industry line, which has long held that food ads merely promote competition among similar brands, rather than inspiring extra food consumption or inducing unhealthier food preferences.