Friday, September 18, 2009

Food Cues

Like many people, I've been enjoying watching "Mad Men" and it has got me thinking about advertising and the effect it has on us. However, it has also made me think about the way in which the world has changed since the early 60's (as that is the period the show is set in) and how lifestyles have changed. The combination of the show being about Madison Avenue advertisers and the time it is set in makes me thing about the combination of these two elements in a manner I don't know that I otherwise might have in terms of how they affect obesity.

In the early 60's, several things didn't happen that happen now. One is that people spent a lot less time watching television because there were fewer channels and not everyone had a T.V. That not only relates to sedentary living but food cues. Food cues are when you are reminded to eat by something other than your body. Seeing a Pizza Hut commercial with a gooey piece of a deep dish pie might spur you to crave pizza, or seeing someone eating an ice cream cone on a T.V. show might make you want some, too. In the past, people ate when their bodies told them to do so rather than when they were cued to do so by external prodding.

What is more, the type of advertising that is done these days is honed to a perfect craft. You can't say that of ads 30 or 40 years ago where there weren't experts figuring out the best way to make food look great in every picture. Cookbooks from the 40's-70's not only contained fewer color pictures (because color printing was so expensive), but they also featured fairly bad color adjustment and unappetizing looking food.

I'm not suggesting that people are mindless vessels that can't ignore advertising, but we are highly susceptible to being cued. The old saying, "out of sight, out of mind" is definitely valid. This is why we forget to do things we should do if we put the items associated with the task in some out of the way place. Seeing food everywhere increases the chances that we'll want to eat more often. It's a reminder of a sensory stimulation that we enjoy.

Personally, I've been aware of how vulnerable to food cues that I am for some time. I respond with the desire that advertisers are hoping for when I see something really tasty on T.V. Since I've been trying to implement lifestyle changes, I try to not focus on the memory of the pleasure of eating the food, but on the fact that I'm being manipulated as a consumer. I didn't want that food a moment ago, and I shouldn't want it now because I saw a picture of it.

That being said, it's only to easy to talk about talking yourself out of such things. I'm guessing that smokers who want to quit smoking may similarly be cued to pick up their bad habit by watching people seemingly enjoy a cigarette on T.V. I think most people are aware that advertising is a cue to engage in certain behaviors, but they may not be aware of the aggregate effect it has on them. You may be able to push the urge away a 100 times, but when you're exposed to commercials or programming showing food (hence the appeal of paying for product placement in popular shows) at least 25 times a day, you're going to be shaped by what you see sooner rather than later.