Are women more susceptible to food ads than men?

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Kids are very responsive to the messages in ads, often not even aware of their persuasive intent. We'd like to think that we adults know better, and are somewhat immune to the power of commercials.

But the mere presence of ads -- and knowing how much money is invested in them -- is probably proof enough that these ads do work. Research also supports the notion that seeing certain foods in ads, and seeing eating these foods as a highly rewarding act - which is how it's invariably presented in ads - increases desire for and consumption of the advertised foods.

A study in this month's Appetite looked at the direct effect food ads had on snacking. The studied group of 82 young students consisted of an equal number of men and women, all of normal weight, all unaware of the purpose of the study.

The students watched a 30 minute nature movie, seated on a comfortable couch, next to which, on a side table, snacks (chips and peanut M&Ms) were freely available. The movie was interrupted by two commercial breaks, in which half the study group was exposed to three ads for energy dense foods and five non-food ads, and the other half was exposed to eight non-food ads. The amount of snacks consumed during the viewing was measured, and the students completed several questionnaires and had their height and weight measured.

The women in the group snacked more when they were exposed to the food commercials. In fact, the women who watched food ads ate, on average, an extra 65 grams of the snacks (I'd estimate that as an extra 300-350 calories) in the short 30 minute of viewing.

The men didn't seem to be affected in the same way. The men actually snacked more when shown the non-food ads.

Why would women be more susceptible to food ads?

Is it that women see ads for junk-food as permission to eat - because, hey, that's what everyone's doing? Advertisers are genius at presenting the product they're selling as the social norm.

Or is it that the ad puts women in a good mood? Elated and free from concern, they indulge in some snacking.

Or do women identify with the happy, pretty (usually thin) mom in the ad and want to adopt whatever it is she's doing?

Or is it that women are more likely to restrict snacking? Getting women to lose their guard by distraction perhaps opens the floodgates to uncontrolled eating.

The authors, led by Doeschka Anschutz, consider these possible explanations. Advertisers usually target women when designing food ads, as women are considered the gatekeepers to the pantry and do most of the food shopping. That might explain why the food ads worked on women. It would be interesting to see if beer ads - directed mostly at men - would affect men's snacking habits. Indeed, maybe men in this study ate more when viewing the non-food ads because the non-food ads were for a car, a camera and a bank - ads typically targeted mainly at a male audience - and these ads grabbed their attention and therefore increased their snacking.

The TV obesity link

Several studies have shown that concentrating on something else makes over-eating more likely. Therefore blending TV viewing with high calorie snack foods is a recipe for weight gain. The food commercial breaks probably just add to the food craving.

Food commercials work. They work especially well on kids, and this study suggests they work their wonders on women, too. If we want to encourage healthier eating we'd be wise to keep junk-food ads away as much we can.

Do you feel that food ads affect you?

Dr. Ayala

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