VANCOUVER, British Columbia — “Do you want fries with that?” It’s age-old question anyone buying fast food knows well. However, is the relentless advertising for sugary drinks and high-fat junk food something that people can overcome? Researchers with the University of British Columbia and the Pitié-Salpêtrière Hospital in Paris say marketing schemes really do tempt some people more than others, but losing weight can change all that.
According to lead study author Dr. Yann Cornil, an assistant professor at UBC’s School of Business, people with weight issues have a weakness to the almost constant bombardment of advertising campaigns designed to make us scrounge around for something to satisfy our sweet and salty cravings.
Canadian and French researchers found, however, that this tendency to fall for the psychological sales pitch can change. When people simply lose a substantial amount of weight — through diet, exercise, or surgery — it can alter their vulnerability to marketing strategies.
Framing affects how people view healthy and unhealthy foods
For the study, researchers collected data on three groups of people over the course of 12 months. Two of the three groups included people with severe obesity. One of these two groups planned to have bariatric surgery, either gastric bypass or another type of weight-loss surgery. The second group of obese patients had no plans for surgery. A third (control) group consisted of normal-weight individuals.
Researchers gathered information on the study participants at three different intervals, based on the timetable of the surgery group. Those times include before the surgeries, three months after, and 12 months post-op.
Researchers designed the study to measure reactions to the marketing tactics that influence food choices. These “framing effects” include how food is branded, advertised, and labeled.
Study participants were first asked to estimate the number of calories in typical snacks and drinks marketers often frame as healthy (such as apple juice and granola bars) and others not usually framed as healthy (such as soft drinks and chocolate bars).
Researchers found that every single participant underestimated the calorie content of “healthy” snacks, but the estimate was particularly off for people with obesity.
Size matters to consumers
Taking the framing effect to the next level, researchers provided nutritional information for some hypothetical portions of fast food fries. The three size options were constant–71 grams, 117 grams, and 154 grams. What changed was the wording. In one instance, the team labeled the portions as small, medium, or large. In another case, they labeled the portions mini, small, and medium — a marketing scheme designed to fool consumers into believing larger portions are not all that large.
“We measured how likely people were sensitive to that framing and whether it would change their choice of fries quantity depending on how the portions are labeled,” Dr. Cornil explains in a university release.
He points out that people with obesity tend to allow labeling to influence their decisions, and would be likely to select a “medium” order of fries when the portion size is actually large.
Although researchers confirm that people with obesity are more vulnerable to food marketing, when these same people lose a great deal of weight following bariatric surgery, marketing strategies become less tempting to the patients.
“People with obesity going through bariatric surgery will become less responsive to marketing over time,” says Cornil. “And after 12 months, their responsiveness to marketing reaches the level of people with more medically-recommended weight.”
Is fighting obesity more mental than physical?
Researchers do not know whether the changes are a result of physiological alterations resulting from surgery — hormonal, neurological, or gut microbiota — or because of different lifestyle choices made after surgery. Cornil says another possible reason is that tastes can change after bariatric surgery.
“The results clearly suggest a bidirectional influence between people’s weight status, psychology and responsiveness to the environment–including marketing,” contemplates Cornil. “So, it’s a complex relationship.”
The research team believes the study results indicate some cause for optimism in the fight against obesity. Had the results been different and shown no changes after weight loss, researchers say this would mean the cause for obesity probably lies in some deep-rooted predisposition.
“That would mean people are endowed with unchangeable psychological characteristics that would always make them more responsive to marketing–which would make it very difficult to sustain a medically-recommended weight,” Cornil suggests. “But one of the positive things is that after significant weight loss, people become less responsive to marketing, such that it is more sustainable to remain at a lower body mass index.”
Researchers say the study findings are significant because for years, it has been assumed that ads for junk food were at least partly to blame for the obesity epidemic. But there was insufficient data to confirm this.
“Our results provide important insights for policy-makers in charge of regulating food marketing in order to curb obesity,” concludes Cornil.
The findings appear in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.