Food Matters

Food Matters

Giving science a seat at the table

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


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.



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

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