Ads can worsen cravings for bad things, study finds

Published On: June 18, 2018 03:19 PM NPT By: Agencies

They can be direct in the form of a giant billboard or take a more subtle approach through product placement. No matter the medium, advertising executives employ numerous tactics to create a need and induce a craving.

Marketing researchers from Utah Valley University investigated how ads can intensify unhealthy cravings for some people more than others based on their thinking style. The study titled "Culturally Contingent Cravings: How Holistic Thinking Influences Consumer Responses to Food Appeals" was recently published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology.

Holistic thinking vs. analytical thinking

The holistic thinking style is a "well‐established characteristic of Eastern culture," according to the study. Such thinkers are inclined to believe that everything in the world is somehow interconnected and often prioritize the context of any situation, said co-author Dustin Harding.

Harding, who is an assistant professor at the university, added that analytical thinkers are less likely to take context into account. Such thinkers view the universe as independent objects that are not connected. Research has suggested that most western people tend to fall into this category.

Effects of advertising on both thinkers

It was suggested that the holistic thinker may be more affected by seeing a popcorn advertisement at a movie theater. In such a context, the advert may trigger feelings of enjoying popcorn while enjoying a film. But the analytical thinker may be less likely to make this connection as they view objects in life more independently.

In order to test this theory, the researchers conducted several experiments to find out whether certain adverts could induce higher levels of cravings among holistic thinkers.

How responses differed based on context

In one experiment, participants placed cotton dental rolls in their mouths which were used to measure salivary responses. They were shown one of two images: a chocolate bar in front of a solid grey background or a chocolate bar in a movie theater.

It was found that holistic thinkers salivated more than their counterparts when they saw the chocolate bar in the context of the movie theater. But there was no difference between the analytical and holistic groups when they viewed the chocolate bar against the grey background.

Another experiment used the same method to compare both healthy and unhealthy foods. Once again, holistic thinkers were more likely to crave unhealthy foods shown in the context of a restaurant.

Solutions for unhealthy habits, rise in obesity

"Regulations on advertisements could be a strategy in countries that are trying to help people make healthier food decisions. Consumers could also become more aware of their thinking styles and make informed choices," Harding said.

However, food advertising has been subject to criticism in both the east and the west. On their website, the American Psychological Association stated that advertising targeted at the youth could be linked to the rising rates of childhood obesity. 

Harding recommended that holistic thinkers, in particular, can consider avoiding television commercials or magazines with an abundance of unhealthy food advertising. "We aren't claiming to solve the obesity problem in Eastern countries, but we hope this research can be one part of the solution," he added.

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