Obesity Villains? Katy Perry and Beyoncé

The study everyone is talking about comes from the Langone Medical Center at New York University, where a team led by Prof. Marie Bragg performed what has been called the “first quantifiable examination of the nutritional quality of food and drink endorsements by music celebrities popular among teens.” Arthur Dominic Villasanta described how rigorous nutritional analysis was employed to evaluate the health value of foods and drinks endorsed by entertainers idolized by teens.

Several dozen stars of popular music were chosen according to certain criteria, which included receiving a Teen Choice Award nomination and appearing in Billboard magazine’s “Hot 100” list. They are people with a high recognition factor among the youth; people who serve as role models. They are listened to and imitated.

The investigators used an advertising database called AdScope to examine all the ads made in a four-year period utilizing the talents of these people. Out of the 163 identified thought influencers, 65 were found to have done what might be characterized as selling out. They peddled, between them, 57 brands of drinks and foods.

And yes, selling is the correct word. As Pepsi executive Adam Harter freely admits, the Super Bowl halftime performers are not just artistic collaborators but marketing partners, and although they are the biggest examples of the trend, selling is also unequivocally the job of even the most obscure backup singer in the least-watched commercial.

As Yasmin Tayag reported, of these 65 celebrities:

[…] nearly all of them were associated with food and nonalcoholic drinks, a massive 81 percent of which were deemed “nutrient poor” according to the Nutrient Profile Model, a standard food industry metric.

By “associated,” we mean enjoying some form of reward for representing a brand in the marketplace. By “nutrient poor” we mean junk food, or junk food’s close relatives. Of the celebrities whose advertising careers were scrutinized, only one, Snoop Dogg, endorsed a natural product considered healthful, namely pistachio nuts.

Two bad girls

A while back, we mentioned the disapproval that greeted singing star Beyoncé’s promotion of Pepsi as far back as 2002 and 2003. Lately, the singer has been featured in such headlines as “Study Finds Beyoncé and Taylor Swift Shill for Sugary, Nutrient-Poor Garbage Food.”

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) criticized her multi-year, $50 million contract agreeing to endorse Pepsi products. One project was a global advertising campaign that introduced the song “Grown Woman,” whose lyrics include the line, “I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want,” including, presumably, drink Pepsi and eat snacks all day. Another line of the song declaims “She got that bum,” an appurtenance which anyone who indulges in enough Pepsi products will certainly attain.

Katy Perry has been on the CSPI radar for a while, since they and several other advocacy groups published an ad in Variety urging her to change her mind about selling out to the same fizzy drink corporation. Activist Michael Jacobson told the press, “We’re focusing on Katy because she’s so popular with young people.” The ad copy read, in part:

Being popular among children brings with it an enormous responsibility. Don’t exploit that popularity by marketing a product that causes disease in your fans.

Although industry publication Adweek covered the incident editorially, its fellow entertainment publications The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard protected Perry by refusing to allow the open letter to her in their pages. Journalist Andrew Hampp noted that Pepsi’s support ranged “from co-hosting the 2012 premiere of her Part of Me concert film, to supporting her 2013 VMA performance under the Brooklyn Bridge and the premiere of PRISM single ‘Dark Horse’.”

With Pepsi’s help, Perry engages the young with her interactive ways, like asking fans to vote on what song she would sing for an awards ceremony. Hampp’s interview with soft-drink exec Adam Harter established that Perry is totally “on-brand” for his corporation, because of her energy and optimism and of course the fact that she has more Twitter followers than anybody. The Pepsi rep told the reporter, “The ability to tap into that fanbase and social network was really appealing.”

Of the Top 10 Twitter personalities, five others besides Perry are singers. Interestingly, the entity with the 9th largest number of followers is Twitter itself.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Study Says Recording Artists Help Boost Childhood Obesity in the US,” ChinaTopix.com, 06/06/16
Source: “Super Bowl Exclusive: Pepsi’s Adam Harter on Hiring Katy Perry,” Billboard.com, 01/30/15
Source: “Study Finds Beyonce and Taylor Swift Shill for Sugary, Nutrient-Poor Garbage Food,” Inverse.com, 06/06/16
Source: “Katy Perry under fire for promoting childhood obesity by shilling Pepsi,” Examiner.com, 10/21/13
Source: “Health Groups Target Katy Perry for Marketing Pepsi,” Adweek.com, 10/21/13
Photo credit: Noodles and Beef via VisualHunt.com/CC BY

Bad Science and Childhood Obesity

The preponderance of evidence gathered over the past decades indicates that candy isn’t really an ideal component of a healthful diet. Still, there are conflicting reports.

The Associated Press obtained records from public universities in an effort to assess the influence that food companies have on the public perception of what constitutes healthful eating. They discovered an interesting paper “funded by a trade association representing the makers of Butterfingers, Hershey and Skittles.” The research showed that children who eat candy tend to weigh less than children who don’t.

According to this report, even Louisiana State University Prof. Carol O’Neil, one of the co-authors, characterized the study as “thin.” In the section that every such paper includes to describe its limitations, the authors noted that the data “may not reflect usual intake” and that “cause and effect associations cannot be drawn,” says journalist Candice Choi.

The information on which the study was based came from government surveys where people self-reported their food consumption over the previous 24 hours. Choi goes on to say:

One of the industry’s most powerful tactics is the funding of nutrition research. It carries the weight of academic authority, becomes a part of scientific literature and generates headlines…

Critics say the worry is that they’re hijacking science for marketing purposes, and that they cherry-pick or hype findings.

The Associated Press investigation looked not only at studies, but also at emails connected with the various projects. Regarding the candy study, they found that the National Confectioners Association had quite a bit of (possibly inappropriate) input.

Concerning a different study (about candy and adults) one of the co-authors told another, “I have finally waded through the comments from NCA. Attached is my attempt to edit based on their feedback.”

This is not a widely recognized best practice for conducting meaningful research. Choi says:

Since 2009, the authors of the candy paper have written more than two dozen papers funded by parties including Kellogg and industry groups for beef, milk and fruit juice… Their studies regularly delivered favorable conclusions for funders — or as they call them, “clients.”

The candy study reflects a basic problem, which is the difficulty of isolating the impact that any particular food can have on a person’s weight. This causes confusion and ambiguity, Choi says. The mental disturbance paves the way for marketers to make what they call “aggressive” and “science-based” claims that are also highly unrealistic. In some cases, doing this kind of research becomes a career path.

The line

Correspondence between the AP investigative journalists and the college also raised some serious questions about the funding aspect.

Sometimes it is hard to know where an ethical line exists. The ace criterion of research is that anybody with the same setup, methodology, materials, etc., should be able to duplicate the experiment. As long as no other institution is barred from trying to do that, it is hard to summon a solid objection, as long as the public knows who paid for it, and can take that into account.

Yet, not every corporation has beneficent aims. Many business school graduates specialize in brainwashing a gullible public, and somebody has to ride herd on those bandits.

A different kind of professor

Over the past year, New York University professor Marion Nestle reviewed 168 industry-funded studies, and to no one’s surprise, 156 of them showed results favorable to the interests of their corporate sponsors. Just to drive the point home, out of 168 experiments, only 12 yielded conclusions that the food manufacturers obviously were not looking for. Prof. Nestle occasionally features the more egregious ones on her FoodPolitics website, if they raise issues she is interested in discussing, or if the sponsored study in question is “particularly amusing.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “AP Exclusive: How candy makers shape nutrition science,” AP.org, 06/02/16
Source: “Six industry-funded studies. The score for the year: 156/12,” Foodpolitics.com, 03/18/16
Photo via Visualhunt

The Sugar Roundups Roundup

Could one post be enough to catalogue and recall the highlights of so many mentions of sugar and its addictiveness? Not possible! Here is another collection of past articles that have featured sugar, and it even includes former attempts at curating them all. Has any other substance, except maybe opium, nicotine or alcohol, inspired so much controversy and drawn to itself so much animus?

World-renowned chef and health activist Jamie Oliver is one of sugar’s staunchest opponents. He worries about its effect on each human within its reach, and its effect on society as a whole, quoting the statistic that 68% of the cases dealt with by Britain’s National Health Service are somehow rooted in sugar.

Oliver is haunted by the thousands of teeth yanked prematurely from the mouths of children. His visits to Mexico are not carefree vacations, but nightmares that present such sights as women feeding Coca-Cola to their offspring. Even his documentary film Sugar Rush could not contain all vilification this gentleman would like to fling at sugar.

Almost everyone has a love-hate relationship with the chemical in its various forms. We know how terribly it affects us and our children, but we can’t let it go. And no wonder, because we are inducted into the sugar army from our earliest days on earth. Sugar is the alcohol of childhood, and except for the exceedingly rare individual, most of us were taught to crave its unique intoxication before we knew any other flavors.

It comes in liquid and solid forms, and can be added to just about anything. Its versatility and availability are two of its strongest weapons. Sure, certain pharmaceuticals are said to be capable of breaking its addictive hold, but the possible side effects are harrowing.

While we are on the subject, let’s list the previous collections:

Of course, many of these pieces mention the white crystal’s addictiveness, but some of them, like “The Sugar Addiction Story” and “Highlights from ‘The Cost of Sugar Addiction'” (describing a 4-part series) really go into hideous detail. Enjoy!

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Photo credit: TheeErin via Visual Hunt/CC BY-SA

How Bad Is Imprinting?

Childhood Obesity News has been looking back over some events in the history of the relationship between food companies and children — specifically having to do with advertising, packaging, and other forms of persuasion, aka marketing.

Five years ago, a University of Oregon/University of Wisconsin study confirmed a few things that were already apparent — namely, that children like sugar, fat, and salt. The coauthors were marketing professor T. Bettina Cornwell and consumer science researcher Anna R. McAlister. The 108 research subjects, divided evenly by gender, were examined about the correspondence between what they liked to eat and their “emerging awareness of brands.”

The protocol went like this:

Each child was shown 36 randomly sorted cards — 12 related to each of two popular fast-food chains, six to each of the two leading cola companies and six depicting irrelevant products. All children were able to correctly place some of the product cards with the correct companies…

The results led the researchers to believe that brand awareness is “linked to the development of a preference for sugar, fat and salt in food.” A few months later, a study published by the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine indicated that 4- to 6-year-old children’s taste preferences are affected by depictions of beloved fictional figures on the packages.

The results showed, among other things, that “Children who saw a popular media character on the box reported liking the cereal more than those who viewed a character-free box.” The authors said:

The results of this experiment provide evidence that the use of popular characters on food products affects children’s assessment of taste. Messages encouraging healthy eating may resonate with young children, but the presence of licensed characters on packaging potentially overrides children’s assessments of nutritional merit.

At the same time, a University of Liverpool team determined that television advertisements for junk food actually do inspire children to make unhealthful food choices. This time, the 281 subjects ranged from age 6 to 13, and the ones who were shown commercials for high-carbohydrate and high-fat foods tended to choose more of those things when mealtime came around.

Journalist Daniel Bates wrote:

After exposure to the junk food adverts there was a “significant” increase in the number who chose branded and non-branded foods that were bad for them…

The effect was especially true for children who usually watched more than 21 hours of television per week.

Research conducted by the Universities of Missouri and Kansas confirmed that older children are as susceptible as younger ones to “overly effective marketing campaigns” that imprint corporate graphic design creations permanently on their consciousness. The 10- to 14-year-old subjects underwent MRI scanning of their brains while looking at different food and non-food corporate logos.

According to the study:

When showed images of fast food companies, the parts of the brain that control pleasure and appetite lit up. The brains did not do the same when showed images from companies not associated with food…

Researchers also found that children were more likely to choose the food branded with the logo with which they were familiar.

These academics reported that fast-food logos are “branded into the minds of children,” an interesting reminder that a brand is not just a distinctive iteration of a familiar product such as cereal or candy, but an identifying mark seared into the skin of livestock, convicts, and slaves.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Preschool kids know what they like: Salt, sugar and fat,” EurekAlert.org, 01/24/11
Source: “Junk food advertising to kids is influential study shows,” Examiner.com, 03/14/11
Source: “Junk food adverts really do make children hungry for unhealthy meals,” DailyMail.co, 06/29/11
Source: “”I’m Lovin’ It”: Fast-Food Logos ‘Imprinted’ in Children’s Brains, Study Says,” Medical Daily.com, 09/25/12
Photo credit: Anne Worner via Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

Research and Relationships

Consider all the different ways we already knew about, in which food corporations can stymie potential government action meant to alleviate the obesity epidemic. As if matters were not already confused enough, news comes from the United Kingdom of a newly-discovered absence. It seems that when civil servants want to look up information the government commissioned and paid for — they can’t. Read this:

Civil servants are having to use Google to locate “ghost” research that has disappeared from public records because the government does not keep track…

Government-commissioned studies with politically inconvenient findings are being delayed or suppressed and official guidance is so vague that the publication process is open to manipulation, causing millions of pounds of research to be lost each year…

All research connected with state contracts signed with external organisations should be published promptly.

This is according to a report compiled by retired judge Sir Stephen Sedley, who concluded that Whitehall (a composite name for the national government, like Americans use “Washington”) badly needs a “publicly searchable centralized register.” Things are falling through the cracks, which is not only a waste of the British citizens’ tax money, but an insidious way to lose information that hurts certain business interests.

For the sake of the curious and deserving public, as well as the investigative journalists who retrieve facts on behalf of that public, transparency ought to be routine. And if certain research findings and recommendations have been rejected by various government branches, the people should, if they are interested, be able to find out why.

Another group of Brits who would appreciate knowing what is going on are the members of Parliament, who like to discuss recommendations, on behalf of the people in their districts, before those recommendations become policy. Presently, out of 24 government departments, only four keep track of government-funded research — even research sponsored by their own departments.

A not-for-profit organization called Sense About Science is concerned, calling this burying of unwelcome evidence a democratic deficit. They also say such shenanigans create cynicism, and they are correct. Is it possible the same underhanded tactics are used in the United States? Here is another interesting thing about Sedley’s report:

It looked into nine specific cases in which the government had been accused of suppressing or delaying politically inconvenient research on contentious policy areas. These included the relationship between childhood obesity and sugar consumption…

A previous post mentioned a study that threw shade on the theory that small lifestyle changes can result in significant and sustainable weight reduction. The work had 20 attributed authors, an unusually large number more suitable, perhaps, to a paper on the invention of the atomic bomb.

Childhood Obesity News reader Wesley Rogers commented:

I just finished reading the full text of the study. The section for Acknowledgments reveals that about half the authors have some financial interests in this subject.

The picture at the top of this page represents the list, which owns up to ties with such entities as Kraft Foods, McDonald’s Global Advisory Council, the Global Dairy Platform, the International Dairy Foundation, the Coca-Cola Foundation, Jenny Craig, the National Cattlemen’s Association, the United Soybean Board, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the World Sugar Research Organization, and other corporate interests, as well as many pharmaceutical companies.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “‘Ghost’ research vanishes from public records,” FT.com, 06/02/16
Image by NEJM.org

Who’s Buying That Stuff?

“Junk” is such an unkind word, especially when applied to food. Certainly, no manufacturer would label its own product as junk. The “Smart Choices” program used the euphemism NTL (or “nutrients to limit”) as a descriptor for certain not-so-smart choices. The program, instituted by food corporations in 2009, was meant to “provide a voluntary front-of-package labeling program that could promote informed food choices.” Having barely gotten off the ground, it ended only a couple of months after it began.

Fourteen major companies decided to put green check marks on the packaging of products they deemed healthful, but when the logo appeared on Froot Loops and Fudgsicles, critics descended in droves. Forbes writer Rebecca Ruiz said:

The uproar over the program has conveyed a definitive message to industry: Don’t try to disguise a nutritional sin with a stamp of approval.

“Energy dense nutrient poor” (EDNP for short) is another term that was coined to avoid rudely calling products junk, but is basically just a way of using four words to denote what could be said with one: specifically, junk.

“Only once in a while or on special occasions” is an more verbose way to say the same thing. That term came into being at around the same time, suggested by the We Can! Program, which categorized edibles as GO Foods, SLOW Foods, and WHOA Foods. The WHOA foods, of course, are the once-in-a-while/special occasions kind, exemplified by french fries, doughnuts, bacon, buttered popcorn, gravy, and almost every known dessert.

This brings up the question of whether any child still exists who recognizes that “Whoa!” is the command to make a horse or a draft animal slow down or stop. More recently, “Whoa!” expresses the need to pause a conversation momentarily, in order to fully comprehend it. The exclamation also denotes surprise, interest, or even great pleasure. Should the word have been chosen to mean “don’t eat this”?

The official industry hat

In the popular TV series 30 Rock, the character Frank established his individuality by wearing each day a different hat with a new slogan lettered on it. One of his hats read “PARTIAL FOODS,” a play on words specifically making fun of the Whole Foods grocery chain. But “partial food” is also a pretty good description of processed products built around a substance that started out as actual food, even if genetically modified, before being mixed with other substances bearing a more distant relation to nutrition.

Dr. Pretlow sees the importance of pointing out “the issue of kids being used to push highly pleasurable foods, in light of the fact that there is a childhood obesity epidemic, and food addiction appears to be a very likely culprit.”

One way to use kids

In 2011, researchers at Johns Hopkins University wondered how, given that small children have neither cars nor credit cards, and indeed can barely even keep a supermarket cart on a straight course, so many brightly-colored packages festooned with cartoon characters find their way into American homes.

Dina Borzekowski, senior author of a study published by the Journal of Children and Media, wrote:

Our study indicates that… one’s familiarity with commercial television characters was significantly associated with overall and specific types of nagging. In addition, mothers cited packaging, characters, and commercials as the three main forces compelling their children to nag.

This gave a name, the “Nag Factor,” to one of the ways in which children are used by clever and profit-driven corporations. The academic folk even differentiated the parent-harassment that they observed into three types, labeled “juvenile nagging, nagging to test boundaries, and manipulative nagging.”

The manufacturers have learned that there is no need to sell to parents. It is only necessary to convince the child, and then depend on her or him to make the caregiver’s life miserable until the desired item is deposited in the cart, ready to be laid on the moving belt at checkout.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Smart Choices Fails,” Forbes.com, 10/23/19
Source: “How do children convince their parents to buy unhealthy foods?,” PsyPost.org, 08/15/11
Photo credit: mroach via VisualHunt.com/CC BY-SA

The Rising Tide — Innocent Phenomenon or Conspiracy?

Recently, Childhood Obesity News started looking back over the past five years of food marketing, to see if any trends can be spotted, or just in case we missed anything that later turned out to be significant.

Part of the overall problem is that, even when the public wins a victory, like requiring manufacturers to list ingredients and nutritional information on food packaging, the average person’s patience for decoding the stats is practically zero. Who has time to stand around in a supermarket, reading tiny print with a magnifying glass? Even if a grownup has a smartphone and the ability to look online for the relative healthfulness of products, who can manage that when meanwhile, the kids are in another aisle, throwing apples at each other?

Many times, the description of a scientific study is too technical for a person to absorb quickly and easily. Thomas Riggins provided a clear, uncomplicated report of work done at the University of Liverpool back in 201l to determine whether commercials for unhealthy foods actually influenced kids. The subjects were between six and 13 years of age. Some watched five minutes of toy commercials, then a cartoon. Others watched five minutes of commercials for snacky pseudo-foods.

Then, all the kids were offered a range of healthy and unhealthy foods, including well-known brands. The group that had watched the food commercials were noticeably more apt to choose edible junk, while the toy commercial group chose less. This type of experiment sounds elementary, because it shows something that most people intuitively realize, even if they manage to keep that knowledge tamped down in their subconscious.

But before manufacturers can be admonished about their advertising habits, and before meaningful laws can be proposed, official test results need to be presented. Study co-author Emma Boyland said:

Our studies highlight that there are global connections between advertising, food preferences and consumption. This is a beyond brand effect, increasing children’s selections of all unhealthy foods — not just those shown in the adverts.

In that paragraph, a certain phrase sticks out like a sore thumb — the researcher’s assertion that this is a “beyond brand effect.” It often seems as if the major food corporations are not really in competition at all, but are joined in a weird cabal based on the old saying, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Again and again, researchers find that commercials stir up cravings, not so much for any particular brand or item, but just for something to shove in the old pie-hole. It is easy to theorize that, deep down, the various companies don’t even really care what effect a particular commercial has on their own bottom line, because a greater principle is in operation.

Company A knows that its commercials will stimulate the consumer to buy or eat something — even if it is from Company B. Meanwhile, Company B knows that its marketing efforts will inspire the consumer to buy or eat something — and even if, this time around, it happens to be Company A’s product, it doesn’t matter. In the long run, it all evens out, with all the Big Food corporations benefitting from all the advertising.

Even though they ostensibly compete against each other, each company rests secure in the knowledge that it will reap its share of profit — if not on this shopping trip, certainly on the next. Each company only needs to contribute to the general amount of craving and the ever-increasing number of addicts, and all the companies win. The only loser is the customer.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Major food companies promote childhood obesity,” PeoplesWorld.org, 08/18/11
Photo credit: Benson Kua via VisualHunt/CC BY-SA

Fat Acceptance Roundup, Revisited

The Great Fat Acceptance Roundup” is great but not complete. Today’s Childhood Obesity News post adds to the collection with an overview of our other reports about various aspects of fat acceptance.

Often, the philosophy seems to shade over into borderline pathology. Unbridled fat acceptance can foster elaborate excuses, self-justification, creative rationalization, self-delusion, and other unhealthy practices and states of mind. To counterbalance that, many courageous obese people go online and admit to how they fool themselves, and try to fool others, about their “condishun.”

In this day and age, it is very easy to find such reading matter as the the online biography of a 300-pound 13-year-old, but that isn’t the worst part. The real tragedy is the contagious mindset that promotes, for instance, the alarming phenomenon of “gainerism.” Some people actually intentionally become morbidly obese, and treat this transformation as if it had no more consequence than the decision to become a blonde or have an ankle tattooed.

When fat acceptance is reinforced by tradition and the weight of cultural pressure, the situation becomes pathetic because its victims are un-rescuable. Sadly, there are nations and religions whose values include the encouragement of morbid obesity in women, even to the point of assuring it through coercion. In this area, the doctrine of diversity becomes very difficult to defend.

The concept of “healthy at every size” is endlessly debatable. At worst, it is a self-destructive doctrine that probably doesn’t need to be spread around because it can lead others down the same path, which is not a straight road. It evolves into a vicious cycle. Acceptance paves the way for more weight gain, and to validate the increased girth, more acceptance needs to be applied — and so it goes.

Regular as clockwork, new discoveries are made about disease conditions caused by adiposity, and new reasons to take this medical problem seriously are exposed. “The Harm in ‘Fat Acceptance’” touches on the basic sense of unfairness felt by many people who resent seeing such a large slice of the nation’s healthcare budget funneled into dealing with the consequences of obesity. For some critics, it is easy to become quite angry over what they perceive as self-imposed, and increasingly expensive, illness.

Fat acceptance has become an industry, populated by plus-size models, advice counselors, specialized dating services, and at least one nightclub devoted to overweight socializing. Fat acceptance has become a facet of romance and a feature of courtship.

On one hand, it is heartening to believe that love is possible for everyone. On the other hand, romantic relationships are already so fraught with drama and potential pitfalls that adding the problems unique to morbid obesity cannot be easy.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Image by wackystuff.

Kids and Compensatory Health Beliefs

The idea that negative effects generated by unhealthy behavior can be neutralized by engaging in a healthy behavior is unlikely to lead to a good place. Compensatory Health Beliefs, or CHBs, seem to be pretty widespread. A typical example, “I can eat this piece of cake now because I will exercise this evening,” was cited in an article published in 2004, when researchers developed a psychometric scale to measure CHBs.

Several years later, the scale did not seem to be performing as expected, and the measurement of CHBs was deemed “problematic,” leading other researchers into investigating:

(a) the kinds of difficulties that people experience when completing compensatory health belief scales; and

(b) what steps will be required to develop a future reliable and valid measure of compensatory health beliefs.

The researchers learned that study participants who did not necessarily believe in a particular CHB would engage in the associated behavior anyway. Another thing they discovered was that talking about the existence of CHBs did not help people escape from them.

Not surprisingly, it was found that the Compensatory Health Beliefs scale needed work. It became a frustrating project, because of the gap between what subjects were willing to admit, and the technicians’ ability to accurately measure the scope of their self-delusional beliefs.

This type of problem is typical of the “soft” sciences, especially when self-reporting is involved. It’s all about internal conflict, self-regulation strategies, and the need to escape from the discomfiture of cognitive dissonance, which basically means holding two opposing beliefs at the same time.

By 2015, the struggle to sort out and articulate the issue was still going on. An article from that year offered this definition:

Compensatory health beliefs (CHB) are a popular strategy that is used to resolve the temptation dilemma in a way that enables the belief holder to avoid feelings of guilt. Compensatory health beliefs are defined as the conviction that unhealthy but gratifying behaviors can be compensated with a healthy behavior, for example: “I can eat this cake now if I go jogging tonight.” Such beliefs relieve the holder of a guilty conscience and justify giving in to temptation.

One of the main and obvious problems is the lack of follow-through. People make these promises to themselves, but somehow when jogging time comes around, the running shoes are left in the corner and the person is more likely to be inert in front of the TV.

The disappointing result of promises made by someone to herself or himself is not surprising, of course. Humans are famous for their ability to rationalize and justify less-than-optimal behavior.

A more worrying dimension to the problem was revealed by British research, namely:

Children use the same psychological ploys as adults to justify eating junk food…

University of Derby doctorate student Atiya Kamal says primary school children use Compensatory Health Beliefs (CHBs) in the same way as adults.

Atiya brought this new facet of the problem to public attention after interviewing about 100 children of both sexes, between 5 and 10 years old and finding that “children do hold CHBs in areas including physical activity, media related activities, a high fat and high sugar diet, oral health and sleep.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Compensatory health beliefs: scale development and psychometric properties,” Tandfonline.com, 2004
Source: “A further look into compensatory health beliefs: A think aloud study,” Wiley.com, February 2013
Source: “Associations between Obesity and Diet-Related Compensatory Health Beliefs,” Questia.com, August 2015
Source: “Children ‘copy junk food ploys’,'” Derby.ac.uk, 08/30/11
Photo credit: torbakhopper via Visual Hunt/CC BY-ND

Advertising and Slogans

Dr. Pretlow believes the millions of overweight and obese kids deserve something better, which is the basis for his book Overweight: What Kids Say; for his Weigh2Rock website; for the W8Loss2Go smartphone application; and indeed for his entire career. He says:

Obesity appears to result from eating for reasons other than hunger, for simple pleasure and as a coping mechanism for relief from sadness, stress, anxiety, and boredom. Nearly unlimited availability of cheap food facilitates this. Food companies market to this, as in “Comfort in Every Bar'”(Milky Way slogan) and “You deserve a break today” (McDonald’s).

According to legend, all the major food corporations learned their seductive advertising techniques from coffee companies. Whether that is subjectively true or not, the undeniable fact is that America is drowning in food advertising.

Anthony E. Gallo, longtime editor of the USDA’s Food Marketing Review, gave his answers to the question, “Why so much advertising?“:

First, the food market is huge, capturing about 12.5 percent of consumer income, and there is vigorous competition among food firms to compete for this market. Second, food is a repeat-purchase item, lending itself to swift changes in consumer opinions. Third, food is one of the most highly branded items in the American economy, thus lending itself to major advertising.

The unstated and probably inadmissible answer is that food is the product that most easily lends itself to emotional manipulation. An important tool in any type of indoctrination is the slogan, catchphrase, motto, saying, or rallying cry. For the Crusaders, it was “Deus hoc vult!,” or “God wills it!”

American revolutionaries yelled “Liberty or death!” Of course not all such slogans are warlike. The Latin saying “Per aspera ad astra,” or “Through hardships to the stars,” has many positive connotations and could appropriately refer to an individual’s journey toward normal weight and improved health.

Childhood Obesity News has mentioned motivational coach Steve Miller, whose battle cry is, “It’s time to shout FAT OFF!!! You deserve better!!!” What could be wrong with telling a fellow human being that she or he deserves a fate better than the current one?

Unfortunately, the ability of slogans to get people charged up is a sword that cuts both ways. Anyone familiar with McDonald’s advertising campaigns will probably feel a subliminal tug on the emotions that were once moved by the fast-food company’s encouraging words, “You deserve a break today.”

Logically, if we condemn McDonald’s slogan, we have to condemn Miller’s slogan too. Or do we? Because in truth, there is nothing wrong with implying that a busy, overworked person needs some respite from the harsh demands of daily life. But that compassionate sentiment goes off the rails when the corporation adds its own name: “You deserve a break today — at McDonald’s.” The harm is in equating a break, a mini-vacation, with a tray full of grease, salt and sugar — substances that neither refresh, renew, nor revitalize.

There is a strange twist to all this encouragement of consumption. We assume that advertising is fiercely competitive. But does it really foster brand loyalty? Can it actually shift brand loyalty? Nobody knows for sure.

Maybe advertising can only trigger generalized desire. When a person sees a Pepsi commercial, and there is nothing but Coke in the refrigerator, he or she will probably settle. But even if advertising does nothing more than stimulate hunger, rather than desire for one particular brand, it is still effective in the larger sense.

Viewed from one perspective, the mega-corporations are not competing with each other, but acting in cooperative mutual altruism. Even if they know for sure that ads do nothing for brand loyalty, so what? It’s still more money in all their pockets. That just might be the world’s biggest conspiracy, how they all work together to stimulate eternal, undiscriminating hunger and thirst.

What if the goal of food and beverage advertising is simply to build a nation of addicts, for the benefit of all the suppliers? As a business motto has it , “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Food Advertising in the United States,” USDA.gov, 1999
Source: “Steve Miller’s Weight Loss Master,” YourWeightLossMaster.co.uk, undated
Photo credit: Coca Cola Museum via VisualHunt/CC BY

Childhood Obesity News | OVERWEIGHT: What Kids Say | Dr. Robert A. Pretlow
Copyright © 2014 eHealth International. All Rights Reserved.