Advertising Retrospective


It is not original to say that in our era, the present comes rushing at us so insistently that we rarely reflect on the past, or even take the time to look at past events. It never hurts to look back at the events that brought us to where we are now.

In 2011, Yale University researchers revealed that the sight of tempting food could stimulate brain activity that looked just like what goes on when an addict contemplates the drug of choice.

Jill Tieman suggested that:

This science can be used to illustrate to lawmakers how the powerful food industry manipulates and engages susceptible people with advertising and food cues. It’s no secret that food companies have been doing this for years.

Previously, parents concerned about such things only needed to worry about the advertisements for candy and sugary cereal that their kids saw along with Saturday morning cartoons. But changes in media technology, making it possible for anyone to watch anything at any time, caused the threat of 24/7 brainwashing to gain traction.

At the time, the American food industry was spending around $33 billion per year on advertising, with about 70% of that figure devoted to touting soft drinks, desserts, candy, snacks, and alcoholic beverages. Only the last item on that list would not impact children. The intentional and unfair deception practiced by advertisers also received criticism.

Lots of washing; not much clean

Remember when the word “greenwashing” entered the cultural lexicon? It describes corporate propaganda whose purpose is to convince us that their product and/or process will not destroy our bodies and/or the planet. It really is a shame that Al Franken had already named a book Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them, because it would have been a great title for a post about greenwashing.

In 2007, EnviroMedia Social Marketing, which focuses on environmental and public health issues, started the Greenwashing Index. People could submit bad examples to the website, such as one company’s allegedly biodegradable plastic bags.

Five years later, with the help of an advisory team, the same organization introduced the Leanwashing Index and grad students seeded the site with examples. Visitors to the site can rate each advertiser claim from 1 (authentic) to 5 (bogus).

The first posts target “nutrition-rich” cookies, breakfast cereals, and drink ads targeting moms and kids. When posting or rating an ad, users respond to prompts to five leanwashing criteria. If an ad is geared toward children, the user is guided through a separate set of criteria.

The site published a list of five terms that food marketers should stop using, such as “natural,” “light,” “whole grains,” and “100 calorie.”

This is the specific objection to “made with:”

Food products can advertise they are “made with” liquid from the fountain of youth, even if fountain of youth juice makes up less than 1 percent of the final product. Ignore “made with” unless you are willing to read the entire ingredients label to make sure the product’s not also “made with” tons of sugar and unpronounceable chemicals.

The hope is that more people will look beyond superficial media presentations and take the trouble to figure out what we are really eating and feeding our kids. To counteract the deceptive and sometimes ludicrous claims that warp kids’ minds and worsen the obesity epidemic, public scrutiny is necessary.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Your Brain on Fake Food,”, 04/07/11
Source: “The Economics Of Obesity- How The Food Industry Makes Us Eat More — Part 2 of 2,”, 05/10/11
Source: “Complaint filed against PepsiCo’s Frito-Lay for deceptive ads targeting teens,”, 10/19/11
Source: “Greenwashing Crusaders Now Tackling Bogus Food Marketing,”, 03/13/12
Source: “Super Bowl 2013 Snack Warning: Don’t Get Punked by the Junk,”, Jan. 2013
Image by Leonid Mamchenkov

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