How powerful are advertisements? In particular, those related to food and drinks?

Well, one advertising campaign was powerful enough to create an entirely new Christmas tradition in Japan.

In 1974, KFC Japan launched its Kentucky for Christmas campaign – a campaign that, four decades later, has created such a demand for its fried chicken during this festive occasion that pre-orders open in early December, and even then, customers sometimes have to queue for up to two hours to pick up their order.

The food and drinks industry spends billions of US dollars on advertising every year.

It is generally assumed that adults are aware of the fact that the entire nature of advertisements, whether subtle or overt, are meant to get you to buy the service or product it features, and thus, are able to exercise their power of rationality to balance the persuasive effects of the advertisement.

However, a lot of time and money has been spent into figuring out how to bypass our rational side and seduce our subconscious.

In one of her studies, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, Behaviour and Health Research Unit research associate Dr Suzanna Forwood found that participants who liked apples were 80% more likely to choose them for dessert, compared to the other choice of a chocolate bar, while those who neither liked nor disliked apples only choose them 20% of the time.

“What that made me think was, if we could get people to say they like apples, it would have a much bigger effect (in making them select the healthy option of apples over the less healthy one of chocolate bars),” she says.

“The next question is, how can we change what people say they like? And what are the important attributes in terms of what people like in food?”

According to Dr Forwood, who intends to research those questions next, this is an area the food industry has been looking into for a very long time.

“They’ve effectively run experiments and collected data, but that data is commercially sensitive.

“Obviously, if you’re in the business of selling food, you’re not going to tell other people that you’ve discovered something that makes people like your particular product.”

So, while what this means for Dr Forwood as a scientist is that she cannot utilise and build upon this protected research, for us consumers, it means that the food industry knows exactly what buttons to push to get us to buy their products.

Marketing to kids

Advertising that is targeted at children is even more subtle.

According to the UK’s Adverti-sing Standards Authority, the rules on advertising to children are strict as “children are generally more credulous and lack the experience of adults to engage, critically assess and cope with commercial images and messages”.

The UK was the first country in the world to ban advertisements of foods high in fats, sugar and salt during television shows specifically targeted at those below 16 years of age. This regulation came into full force in 2008.

Centre for Diet and Physical Activity Research (Cedar) Popula-tion Approaches to Promoting Healthy Diets lead Dr Jean Adams says: “There is a lot of concern about food marketing to children.

“More recently, there were some big reviews showing that it was actually having an effect on what children prefer to eat and what they do eat.”

She shares that similar to comments made previously by the tobacco industry, food companies say that they just want consumers to choose their brand.

However, research has shown that those advertisements make viewers want the food in general, and not just the particular brand.

In 2009, while working at Newcastle University’s Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, Dr Adams and her colleagues published a paper in PLOS One on the effects of the UK advertising ban six months after it was fully enforced.

While they found that the ruling was being adhered to properly, the effect was not turning out as desired.

“Comparing what children were seeing on telly before the regulation came in and six months after, we found that there was no change in the proportion of adverts that they were seeing that were for less healthy foods.

“Paradoxically, there was a 50% increase in the proportion of adverts that adults were seeing that were for unhealthy foods.

“So, the ads seem to have shifted into places where adults could see them and children could continue to see them. They moved from places like cartoons to shows like The X Factor (which have a mixed viewer demographic).”

The conclusion of the paper was that: “Stronger restrictions targeting a wider range of advertisements are necessary to reduce exposure of children to marketing of less healthful foods.”

Ad-ing unhealthy choices

Dr Forwood, a psychologist currently looking into the factors around food presentation that influence its selection, found that seeing an image of a food tends to reinforce the already-present desire to purchase it.

“I have done a study showing images to people, and what it suggests is that the people who are vulnerable to those images are those who had some preexisting desire to purchase that item anyway.

“So, it may not be getting everyone to buy crisps (for example), but for people who occasionally buy crisps, it would be getting them to buy crisps a bit more often – it is a strengthening of a behaviour that you have already shown,” she explains.

In another study to look into how interventions can help consumers make healthier food choices, Dr Forwood set up an online supermarket simulation to conduct her research.

Participants were given a list of general items to buy (e.g. a loaf of bread [approx. 800g loaf], a snack to have between meals, a sandwich filling, etc) and a budget of GBP25 (RM160).

They were randomly allocated to five groups: the control group, consent swap at point of product selection, consent swap at point of checkout, imposed swap at point of product selection and imposed swap at point of checkout.

The swaps were for similar, but healthier products that were at least 100 kJ/100g lower in energy than what they had selected.

“What we found there, really interestingly, is that people who accepted the swap showed a benefit, but only a small proportion of people accepted the swap.

“Overall, it didn’t have an effect because most people were saying no to everything they were offered.”

The results of the study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity last June, showed that the median number of swaps accepted was one, while nearly half (47%) of the participants who were offered swaps said no to everything.

“Essentially, what we have is a problem where people say no to everything that you suggest; if they had said yes, it would have had an impact,” says Dr Forwood.

Tan Shiow Chin was a 2015 Khazanah-Wolfson Press Fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. This article is part of a series from her fellowship project on the subconscious cues that influence us to eat more and unhealthily. Her next article will be on product placement in supermarkets.