Thanks to pregame hype and Hollywood-quality production values, Super Bowl commercials have become the main attraction for many viewers. But are these blockbuster ads bad for our waistlines?
Food and beverage companies are expected to account for roughly one-third of the ads that will air during Sunday’s game, according to Advertising Age. (Car companies will take up another one-third or so, with the remainder split among websites, film studios, and retail chains.) Viewers and partygoers—including millions of children—can expect to see ads from Doritos, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Snickers, and Budweiser.
In other words, a high proportion of ads are pitching soda, snacks, and other junk foods loaded with calories, sugar, sodium, and fat.
“Studies show [that] if you see an ad for a product and try it for the first time, you like it more than if you didn’t see the ad,” says Jennifer Harris, Ph.D., the director of marketing initiatives at Yale University’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, in New Haven. “It really is shaping our preferences as well as triggering us to eat more.”
Yes, Advertising Works
Humor, suspense, and sexy people digging into supersize bags of Doritos have become a staple of Super Bowl commercials. It’s the oldest trick in the book: Make a product or brand attractive and appealing by surrounding it with attractive and appealing stuff.
It’s tempting to believe that this strategy won’t work on you. In the real world, nearly everyone recognizes that people who consume a lot of soda, junk food, and beer are often overweight and unhealthy—not exactly what’s depicted on-screen. And yet we give in to the ploy.
“We know the effects of excessive snacks are quite adverse to people’s health. If you drink a lot of beer, you aren’t going to get all the attractive women,” says Frederick J. Zimmerman, Ph.D., an economist and professor of health services at the UCLA School of Public Health. “That may seem obvious, but those images work on us on a subconscious level.”
Zimmerman believes the true culprit behind the obesity epidemic isn’t high-fructose corn syrup, sodium, or saturated fat, per se, but rather the ubiquitous marketing that makes foods containing those ingredients appealing to Americans.
In his research on the health effects of television on children (and more recently adults), Zimmerman found that the number of commercials people see is more closely linked to the risk of being overweight or obese than the total time they spend watching TV.
And the subconscious impact of Super Bowl ads might be even greater than that of everyday commercials, because the ads are part of the entertainment, Harris says. “If you see a commercial trying to give you information, you know exactly what it’s doing,” she says. “But if you’re just being entertained, you’re not looking at it in that same way, which is probably what makes it more effective.”
The power of advertising has largely had a negative effect on our health, but in theory that power could be harnessed for good, says Jonathan H. Whiteson, M.D., who has seen the fallout from the obesity epidemic firsthand as the director of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.