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The Marketing Diet: Want to lose weight? Give up Marketing.

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The Groundbreaking, Scientifically-Advanced Technique Guaranteed To Melt Away The Pounds And Fix Every Problem In Your Life.

Did you know that there is a powder that you can sprinkle onto your food that will make you lose weight? Or that you can “eat yourself skinny” just by consuming a number of “super-foods” that will “whittle away your waist?” Also apparently there is just “one weird trick” you can use to melt away your belly fat.

If you live in America, and have been outside your home, watched television, or looked at the Internet ever, you are probably aware of at least one of these amazing advances in weight-loss technology. We are obsessed with weight. This neurosis is evident in our TV shows, in the grocery store checkout lane, and in the ads and articles splattered throughout our web browser windows. A 2006 Pew Research poll found that two out of every three Americans were dieting, exercising, or doing both. Those that were dieting were on average 29 pounds heavier than they wanted to be, and people who were neither dieting nor exercising were on average 12 pounds heavier than they wanted to be.

There is some legitimate concern. Obesity rates have skyrocketed over the last few decades. While policy level solutions would probably be more effective, extensive efforts to educate individuals about weight management have led many people to successfully lose weight and keep it off through diet and exercise. But the successes are few. It is still not well understood what makes some people successful at weight loss while so many others struggle.

The majority of diets fail, and the majority of people who lose weight gain that weight back after five years, and despite thousands of promises of “Easy!” and “Fast!” weight management is anything but either. The 2006 Pew poll found that 93 percent of all adults said that losing weight is hard, or very hard. So why do we still see all these messages promising us an easy fix? It appears that those messages are somewhat misleading (gasp!).

We also get a lot of messages encouraging us to eat certain foods. I’ve cited this in a previous post, but I think it’s a very telling quote: In response to proposed nutritional standards for foods advertised to children, a representative from General Mills pointed out that “of the 100 most commonly consumed foods and beverages in America, 88 would fail the [standards].”

While we could never say definitively that advertising causes obesity, there is plenty of evidence that the majority of foods that are advertised are not very good for us. There is also plenty of evidence that advertising of foods, as crazy as this sounds, leads to increased consumption of those foods (if you don’t believe that is true and you own any shares in a food company I suggest writing some letters to the board about the billions of dollars they are wasting every year).

We have a marketing environment that encourages behaviors that lead to obesity. In response to this, a marketing environment has emerged that offers solutions that don’t solve that problem, and probably create even more problems, such as unrealistic weight expectations and body dissatisfaction.

What would happen if we removed ourselves from that marketing environment altogether?

The Marketing Diet


Here is my own “one weird trick”: Give up the marketing.

Here’s how it works:

1. When a commercial comes on the TV, mute it, and go do something else until your show comes back on.

2. If a commercial comes on the radio, mute it for a few minutes until your programming comes back on

3. If a magazine is mostly advertisements, don’t read it, or find the article you want on-line where you can implement ad-blocking software, and where it won’t be sandwiched between a glossy Godiva ad and a South-Beach Diet promotion.

4. Packages are advertising. Keep that in mind.

5. The grocery store is basically a giant immersive, marketing experience. Also keep this in mind.

Think of every ad impression as a little brain calorie. Every time you see an ad, your likelihood to act upon that ad increases just a little bit more than if you hadn’t seen it. As you accumulate these brain calories, you could end up with a marketing-brain-calorie surplus, and then you’ll be more likely to behave in a way that you might kick yourself over later (this is that ground-breaking scientifically-advanced part I mentioned at the top)

One of the difficult things about diets is that we have to give up something that we often crave, and we often give in. But how many of us really love the assault on our senses that is a Dairy Queen commercial with creepy disembodied Rolling Stones lips urging us get a blizzard with our bacon cheeseburger? What would we really be missing?

To be sure, just like other diets there will be those special occasions, like the Super Bowl, or that one ad that was brilliant that went viral that everyone is talking about. There will also be plenty of times when it just isn’t practical or easy to mute something, like if you’re at a friend’s house. There are also probably plenty of  products or services that you would really like to learn about. Also, if you were to be strict about the “packaging is advertising,” you’d miss out on plenty of great products like frozen fruits, or canned veggies. That’s ok. The marketing diet is more of a guiding principle than a rigid rule set.

By now if you’re very clever you’ve probably realized this “diet” will not in fact solve every problem in your life, much less help you to “melt away the pounds” (Ha! I used emotionally-charged, controversial language in the title to get you to read this article!). But that brings us to the other happy result of the marketing diet: Even if it doesn’t work to change your body like you originally thought it would, that won’t be as big a deal, because our obsession with our bodies is a market-driven social construct! If you don’t believe me look at this ad:


There is plenty of evidence that exposure to images of a thin body ideal creates greater body dissatisfaction. Ignoring the models and attention-grabbing “weight-loss miracles” on the magazine rack may help keep your thoughts on how you’re going to tackle dinner rather than how much you’re going to weigh when that high school reunion rolls around. Without the market pressure to look a certain way, we can focus on the central issues of this obesity problem: poor nutrition and a lack of adequate physical activity.

In their own words:


Even people in the industry have acknowledged how marketing has led to a number of serious issues. In 2004 the American Marketing Association (AMA) approved this definition for marketing:

Marketing is an organizational function and a set of processes for creating, communicating and delivering value to customers and for managing customer relationships in ways that benefit the organization and its stakeholders.

The last few words that bequeath the benefit to solely to the organization and its stakeholders are very important. Sure, a consumer may perceive that he is enjoying value when he buys 64-ounce soda, but value is very different from well-being. Marketing Scholars William Wilkie and Elizabeth Moore submitted an essay published in the Journal of Public Policy and Marketing objecting to the 2004 definition because (among other reasons) it failed “to consider and address major societal and public policy issues.”

“Marketing by food purveyors is pointed to by many observers as a key contributor to [obesity]: unhealthful foods being heavily and attractively advertised, ready availability, frequent price promotions, urgings to “supersize,” questionable product assortments, and so forth. Much of the concern represents cumulative impacts across firms, in addition to overconsumption across time.”

They continue in a later section:

“…[E]very individual marketer attempts to advance his or her product or service to the consumer market. In the aggregate, therefore, this collection of individual marketing efforts means that the marketing system proposes far too much consumption for any individual to come close to undertaking. The system acts as if consumer resources and wants are infinite and insatiable; every product and service category is advocated as worthy of consumption for virtually every consumer.”

(emphasis mine)

To its credit, in 2007 the AMA changed the definition to the following:

Marketing is the activity, set of institutions, and processes for creating, communicating, delivering, and exchanging offerings that have value for customers, clients, partners, and society at large.

If member organizations of the AMA truly adhere to this definition, then maybe someday we will see an end to marketing practices that are clearly contributing (by some of its members’ own admission) to some serious societal problems. However, that can only happen if everyone gets on board. Even if she really wants to, a marketing executive at General Mills can’t afford to stop marketing sugary cereals if her competitor at Kellogg’s is still pushing Fruit-Loops.

Public health researchers and policy makers spend a lot of time and effort championing policies that would limit marketing of unhealthy foods, and it appears some of this work (along with consumer pressure) is having some positive effects on industry practices, as seen in McDonald’s recent announcement it will promote healthier happy meals. * However, for the most part such actions are politically and legally very difficult to implement. I’m all for systems-level policy solutions, but until the sea of food and health marketing seriously changes, through industry or government action, we’ll just have to continue navigating it on our own.

And maybe the best way across is to simply go around…


* Update 9/30/13, 1:36pm: To be clear, McDonald’s is in fact still leaving the option open to include sodas on their happy meal menus, as described here, by CSPI.



Andreyeva, T., Kelly, I. R., & Harris, J. L. (2011). Exposure to Food Advertising On Television: Associations With Children’s Fast Food and Soft Drink Consumption and Obesity (Working Paper No. 16858). National Bureau of Economic Research.

Boush, D. M., Friestad, M., & Wright, P. (2009). Deception in the marketplace: The psychology of deceptive persuasion and consumer self-protection. Routledge New York.

Cairns, G., Angus, K., & Hastings, G. (2009). The extent, nature and effects of food promotion to children: a review of the evidence to December 2008. Geneva: World Health Organization.

F. Baumeister, R. (2002). Yielding to Temptation: Self‐Control Failure, Impulsive Purchasing, and Consumer Behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 28(4), 670–676.

Grave, R., Calugi, S., Molinari, E., Petroni, M. L., Bondi, M., Compare, A., & Marchesini, G. (2012). Weight loss expectations in obese patients and treatment attrition: an observational multicenter study. Obesity research, 13(11), 1961–1969.

Harris, J. L., Bargh, J. A., & Brownell, K. D. (2009). Priming effects of television food advertising on eating behavior. Health Psychology, 28(4), 404.

Harris, J. L., Pomeranz, J. L., Lobstein, T., & Brownell, K. D. (2009). A Crisis in the Marketplace: How Food Marketing Contributes to Childhood Obesity and What Can Be Done. Annual Review of Public Health, 30(1), 211–225.

Hastings, G., Stead, M., McDermott, L., Forsyth, A., MacKintosh, A. M., Rayner, M., … Angus, K. (2003). Review of research on the effects of food promotion to children. Centre for Social Marketing, University of Strathclyde Glasgow.

Hui, S. K., Bradlow, E. T., & Fader, P. S. (2009). Testing Behavioral Hypotheses Using an Integrated Model of Grocery Store Shopping Path and Purchase Behavior. Journal of Consumer Research, 36(3), 478–493.

Katz, D. L. (2005). COMPETING DIETARY CLAIMS FOR WEIGHT LOSS: Finding the Forest Through Truculent Trees. Annual Review of Public Health, 26(1), 61–88.

Knobloch-Westerwick, S., & Crane, J. (2012). A Losing Battle Effects of Prolonged Exposure to Thin-Ideal Images on Dieting and Body Satisfaction. Communication Research, 39(1), 79–102.

Luevorasirikul, K. (n.d.). Body Image and Weight Management: Young People, Internet Advertisements and Pharmacists.

Scully, M., Dixon, H., & Wakefield, M. (2009). Association between commercial television exposure and fast-food consumption among adults. Public Health Nutrition, 12(01), 105–110.

Tsai, A. G., & Wadden, T. A. (2005). Systematic Review: An Evaluation of Major Commercial Weight Loss Programs in the United States. Annals of Internal Medicine, 142(1), 56–66.

Veerman, J. L., Beeck, E. F. V., Barendregt, J. J., & Mackenbach, J. P. (2009). By how much would limiting TV food advertising reduce childhood obesity? The European Journal of Public Health, 19(4), 365–369.

Viewing images of high-calorie foods brings on high-calorie cravings, research finds. (n.d.). Retrieved September 29, 2013, from




Patrick Mustain About the Author: Patrick Mustain is a Minneapolis-based freelance health and science writer and digital media producer. He is interested in the challenges of public health in a consumer society. He is also a co-founder and director of, an organization inviting health and fitness professionals to help reform the industry from within. He also likes sandwiches and climbing on things. You can find more of his work at his website, Follow on Twitter @patrickmustain.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Comments 6 Comments

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  1. 1. 12:03 pm 09/30/2013

    Wow, love the idea of going on a marketing diet! I have been on one for years, though I never put it in words. I’d say the only drawback is that it makes you a serious nerd (I can’t name one pro sports player or current tv series – I know, lame). The plus-side is more time for reading, spending time with loved ones, getting outside, being creative, cooking and more. Heh, maybe I should think up a marketing campaign for it, eh? Convert more people?! Maybe Foundation for a Better Life would fund it?!

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  2. 2. larkalt 4:05 pm 09/30/2013

    One problem is, many people don’t like to believe that marketing affects their buying decisions, so they don’t avoid it.
    I take the effects of marketing quite seriously. I don’t have a TV; I don’t belong to a gym where you are subjected to TV programming while exercising. I get almost all of my food from the produce section of the grocery store, where there is little marketing – since I eat vegan and almost all unprocessed foods. I use adblocking software online. I only subscribe to one magazine, a physics magazine which doesn’t have the standard ads. I buy a lot of things online rather than in stores.

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  3. 3. MichaelKovari 5:33 pm 09/30/2013

    Or, move to the UK, and be entertained and informed by the BBC. (You’ll still have to put up with the TV chefs – but they don’t care if you eat the food, so long as you watch the shows and buy the books.)

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  4. 4. DanielWWalton 9:27 pm 09/30/2013

    The packaging recommendation is really one of the single best ways to learn to eat healthily. Fresh fruit and veg, bulk grains and beans, small amounts of spices, and one is all set up. Of course, swearing off packaging does leave the small issue of potent potables…

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  5. 5. BRScience 10:04 am 10/1/2013

    Mustain writes, “There is plenty of evidence that exposure to images of a thin body ideal creates greater body dissatisfaction,” and as evidence of this he links to a 2012 study in the journal “Communication Research” by Silvia Knobloch-Westerwick and Josselyn Crane.

    If you actually read the study, it comes to the opposite conclusion of what Mustain wrote: “Prolonged exposure to thin-ideal messages led to greater body satisfaction” and that “Participants who were exposed to thin-ideal messages for 5 days in a row reported body satisfaction increases” (p. 95).

    That is, this study found that women who see these thin ideal images are more satisfied with their bodies, not less. Oops.

    Link to this
  6. 6. pmustain 11:59 am 10/1/2013

    @BRScience: Thanks for commenting.

    This was probably a poor example, thanks for pointing it out. However, I don’t think this study disagrees with the bulk of research that shows that a cultural thin-ideal is related generally to poor body satisfaction.

    The body satisfaction increases in this study were coupled with an increase in dieting behaviors compared to the control group, and the authors posit that the medium term-effects of those dieting behaviors may have elicited the observed increases in body satisfaction.

    But they continue:

    “Dieting is known to result in long-term weight gain for the vast majority of dieters (e.g., Neumark-Sztainer, Wall, Haines, Story, & Eisenberg, 2007). As a result, attainability perceptions may eventually change after unsuccessful dieting attempts, which should lead media users to avoid body-ideal messages because of their self-deflating impact in case of perceived low attainability. However, if the lack of success is attributed to oneself (i.e.,perceived lack of self-control), the individual may continue attending to body-ideal messages, hoping to diet with more success in the future. Thus media exposure may contribute to a vicious cycle of greater thin-ideal internalization, engaging in dieting that often entails unhealthy eating behaviors, and long-term weight gain; moreover, these processes will typically involve much negative affect, reduction in self-esteem, and potentially the development of a serious eating disorder (Heatherton & Polivy, 1992).”

    Generally, most of the research does indeed point to an association between exposure to the thin-body ideal and body dissatisfaction.

    For more see

    (these reviews point out that the findings are sometimes inconsistent, but overall an effect appears to be present)

    Thanks for participating in the discussion!


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