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The Health Halo: Marketing is killing us

Part 1 of a three part series on the damage done to our bodies, our planet and our economy

Several years ago I lectured in a management school in England. One of the classes I gave was on food marketing. I began the class by playing a clip from the then famous documentary, ‘Super Size Me’, where the protagonist Morgan Spurlock undertakes an extreme diet of McDonald’s-only food for a month to chart the consequences on his body and mental health. The clip I chose is near the beginning of the documentary – where two American teenagers are about to sue McDonald’s for their obesity. I freeze-framed the image of the two teenagers, and turned to the class. “Where”, I wanted to know, “does personal responsibility end and corporate responsibility begin?”. As you can imagine, the entire class fell silent. Then one student pointed to the screen, and said, “Do you see those two girls? They deserve to die”.

My shock only lasted a moment before the other students chimed in with qualifications to the student’s statement – no, not really that they deserved to die, but that they were the ones that were ultimately responsible for their own health! – everyone knows that McDonald’s is unhealthy food and should be eaten in moderation! – no one is forcing them to eat junk food! – and so on. I asked them whether they would react differently had I presented them with a documentary on the beauty industry and freeze-framed two anorexic girls who were suing L’Oréal for their unrepresentative portrayals of extremely thin women. “No!” was the incredulous reaction. In such a scenario, there would be more justification for blaming beauty brands, as they stimulate a mental vulnerability in all women, with some falling victim at a more extreme level.

The classroom is a microcosm of society – albeit a pretty rarefied one. These students, I concluded, were not some extremist bunch whose mental processes were close to psychotic. In fact, you could probably argue, their reactions were a base point for most people’s; they just happened to be unguarded in their response. I suspect in fact most people feel this way. We feel that we should be able to ingest what we want, as long as it’s legal, and that the market doesn’t force us to do anything – certainly not to consume to excess. These two obese girls are what we would call ‘bad consumers’ – they haven’t learned the rules of the market properly. Perhaps they lack information (they don’t know that it’s healthy to eat at least five pieces of fruit or vegetables a day, for example). Or perhaps they lack restraint, whether moral or physiological (as in, their hypothalamus, the part of the brain that supposedly regulates appetite, isn’t functioning properly).

No aspartame, but how about sugar?

And yet, is this the whole picture? The longer I teach marketing, the more uneasy I am about where this locus of control lies. We have never been so health-conscious and at the same time so fat. These two trends, rather than being opposites, go hand-in-hand. How come? The first reason I believe lies in what I call the perversity of marketplace knowledge. Marketplace knowledge refers to all the information we have about the market – how much a pint of milk costs, where to buy a lawnmower, how many calories are in a can of Diet Coke, that washing machines live longer with Calgon. That is a huge trove of information that we learn over the years and carry around in our heads! Thus, it is much better to think of consumers as learners and marketing as their teacher. Within this model, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the more information you had the better decisions you’d be able to make.

However, recent research would suggest that this is not the case. In fact, the more involved we are in our market-place decisions, the more ‘brand literate’ we are, the more we fall victim to what are known as halo effects. The consumer researcher Pierre Chandon has shown that when one aspect of a food is portrayed as healthy, consumers will tend to mentally categorise the entire food as healthy, leading them to underestimate its calorie content, and to overconsume it. This phenomenon is known as the health halo, and it is not ‘marketing illiterate’ consumers who fall victim to it, but precisely those of us who know a little about nutrition, are health conscious, and can understand how branding works.

When the so-called health benefits of a food are foregrounded on packaging and advertising (organic, gluten-free, high in natural fibre, sugar-free, low-fat, packed with fruit, etc.), consumers typically miscalculate the product’s calorific content: gluten-free bread or organic ice-cream is somehow healthier for us. This is not a conscious mechanism; in fact, when people are made aware of it, they tend to regulate their behaviour.

The problem is of course that the environment we live in is obesogenic – we are surrounded by messages that encourage eating, and counter-messages are virtually non-existent. Chandon’s research also revealed that when consumers believe they are eating healthily they will unconsciously reward themselves – those who opted for Subway (positioned as a healthy fast food) over McDonald’s in one particular instance tended to add a side and a dessert to their order. In another experiment, by Chandon’s colleague Alexander Chernev, overweight participants when presented with ‘light’ M&Ms increased their consumption by 47%, whereas normal-weight participants only increased their consumption by 16%. In this ‘negative calorie illusion’, people who are more attuned to features of food and drink that supposedly promote health are likely to consume more. You can be weight-conscious and opt for diet versions of foods, but you are more likely to underestimate the calories, consume more and ultimately become heavier.

These mechanisms are typical of the psychological vulnerabilities that the food marketing system is expert in. Our weaknesses stem in part from how we think of food in the first place. Ask anyone to give a definition of ‘food’, and their answer will likely be something like ‘a source of fuel or energy for the body’. This is what I call the engineer’s perspective of the world – and most people, when asked to define food, speak like engineers. But the best marketers are those who know that everything we buy has a deeper, emotional motivation behind it.

We are unconsciously looking for what marketers call ‘benefits sought’. If a marketer is able to unlock the deeper pleasure-seeking, status seeking or identity-building benefit behind an innocuous purchase, they will develop a better set of cues to activate that desire.

As strange as it sounds, we don’t buy bread, we buy sustenance for the soul. We don’t buy lightbulbs, we buy illumination. Or, in the famous words of the founder and CEO of Revlon, we don’t buy lipstick, we buy dreams. Converting this simple yet elusive idea of benefits sought to the world of food, we can begin to understand how food is not fuel, but fashion (goji berries, cupcakes, nori crisps, craft beer). We use it to compete for status (someone drinking a San Pellegrino Melograno e Arancia is saying something different from what someone drinking a Club Orange is saying, and the person who insists they can tell the difference is only needier to acquire the benefits sought). We use it to define boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ – for instance the researcher Susan Linn has shown that many kids’ food brands portray adults as mean, uncool, incompetent or absent. Food is a psycho-social comfort blanket, and we are encouraged on a daily basis to treat ourselves. Unhealthy food has been allowed to become more convenient, less expensive, more visible and more attractive than ever before.

As has been widely reported, Ireland’s obesity rate is the worst in Europe, with projected obesity rates of 37-38% by 2025. What will the psychological, health, social and financial costs be? In 2012 Ivan Perry of University College Cork, in collaboration with Safefood Ireland, estimated that the cost of obesity in Ireland, which includes both the specific direct costs (such as hospital care) and indirect costs (such as reduced work productivity) comes to a total of €1.27 billion per annum. That number is based on obesity rates, health costs and other factors from 2009 – so what kind of economic and psychological bill will we be presented with when 2025 comes round?

This is what they call a ‘superwicked’ problem in social policy. One of the characteristics of a superwicked problem is that those who are causing the problem are attempting to solve it. A Healthy Weight for Ireland: the Irish government’s obesity policy and action plan for 2016-2025 reads as if obesity were a medical problem. Unfortunately, this is to use the same faulty thinking that I outlined just now: as if we simply need more education to finally understand that junk food is bad for us. The plan is at best desperately naïve and at worst conveniently complicit in food marketing’s power. It refers on one occasion to the need to develop “a code of practice” – whatever this means – for food marketing. And guess what? The ‘food industry’ (which has been a key player in the consultation process) is in charge of this action. Letting the food industry have a seat at the table is like, as someone once put it, putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank.

To this end, I propose that we frame the problem as a war on obesity. Doing this takes seriously the power and indirect impact of the multi-billion-euro food-marketing industry. It would radically curtail the industry’s influence and more honestly acknowledge that the playing field is not even. It would include five policy interventions:

1. Plain packaging on all foods which have a certain fat or sugar threshold

2. A ban on advertising junk food to children

3. A robust sugar tax

4. A massive investment in ‘eating culture’, which would see free community-level cooking classes, dedicated cooking advisors (much like the role of the public health nurse) to visit homes and help change people’s eating habits, and the mandatory teaching of home economics within secondary schools

5. The inauguration of public gyms with subsidised memberships and the full range of training that exists in the private sector.

Obesity is a market failure – where the regulation of an industry by market forces has caused a problem that exceeds the market benefits. Another characteristic of superwicked problems is that time is running out, as is the case here. In the next issue of Marketing is Killing Us, I will look at marketing and climate change, where it looks like time has already run out.


Norah Campbell is assistant professor of marketing in Trinity Business School, Trinity College Dublin.


This article was commissioned for Village Magazine by Field Day. Founded in 1980, Field Day is a publishing and theatre company dedicated to cultural critique. A Field Day podcast will be launched later in 2017.