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Press Release

Super Bowl Ads Will Contribute to Growing U.S. Obesity Problem, Says Business Professor at Cal Poly

Contact: Pat Pemberton

805-235-0555; [email protected]

SAN LUIS OBISPO, Calif. — While television audiences eagerly await the funny, creative and memorable commercials set to air during Sunday’s Super Bowl, those ads are also likely to exacerbate the worsening obesity epidemic, said a Cal Poly business professor.


Portrait of Brennan Davis
Brennan Davis, marketing professor at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business

“There are plenty of experimental studies showing these ads are affecting people and actually causing people to consume more unhealthy food,” said Brennan Davis, a marketing professor at Cal Poly’s Orfalea College of Business who has researched the impact of marketing on obesity. “And we know that eating unhealthy food leads to higher rates of overweight and obesity.”

For TV commercials, the Super Bowl represents a golden opportunity to reach massive audiences, which is why NBC can charge over $6.5 million for a 30-second spot for this year’s game, set for Feb. 12. According to Kantar, a data analytic and brand consulting company, those ads work, offering advertisers increased brand awareness and a strong return on investment.


Many of those ads push unhealthy foods. A study published in the journal Pediatrics revealed that 76 percent of food products shown during sporting events were unhealthy.


And according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42 percent of U.S. adults are already obese — significantly higher than the 31 percent figure from the early 2000s. Obesity is associated with other serious health issues, such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes. The CDC defines obesity as a BMI, or Body Mass Index — a person’s weight in kilograms divided by the square of height in meters — of 30.0 or higher. A BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 is considered a healthy weight range.


Despite the known correlation between unhealthy food and obesity, those who create ads for food products know how to draw consumers to them.


“Most marketing people have come through marketing programs that are steeped in what we call consumer behavior courses that essentially are consumer psychology,” Davis said.


According to basic marketing principles Davis teaches, traditional marketing mixes what he calls “the four P’s” — product, promotion, place and price — to influence consumer attitude and behavior toward food. Promotion includes strategies such as packaging graphics, print ads and commercials.


While consumers might normally view ads with skepticism or boredom, Super Bowl commercials are an exception, when viewers look forward to clever, star-studded spots.


“We’re also looking for pleasure and entertainment,” Davis said, and food ads equate products with pleasure. Meanwhile, he added, advertisers control what consumers focus on with clever verbal descriptions.


So even if we know too many chips are bad for us, Davis said, humorous spots with celebrities — especially if they are attractive — are likely to influence us subconsciously. Famous people, he said, lend credibility to products and make consumers think the food is going to lead to an exciting experience.


“During a Super Bowl event, people are going to dial down that part of their brain that’s processing things more rationally in terms of the costs of eating unhealthy food,” he said.


Past policy solutions have tried to raise awareness of unhealthy foods, such as requiring restaurants and packaging to display calorie counts. While initially shocking, people eventually were either confused by those or just ignored them, said Davis, who wonders if there are more effective ways to promote awareness.


“What if every seventh chip in a can were bright red, reminding you that you’ve reached your one-serving size?” he said. “That might help you make your decisions and trigger that part of your brain that is more logically accessing the healthy food matters.”


But sometimes policy can backfire, such as New York City’s so-called soda ban in 2013, which sought to curb sales of sweetened drinks larger than 16 ounces in food-service establishments.

While some lauded the proposal, others mocked it — and courts eventually rejected it.


Ads for unhealthy food are unlikely to be regulated like tobacco products, Davis said, but the mere threat of policy could encourage change. A better approach, Davis said, might be to make healthy food more appealing.


“There have been studies showing that if you put a cartoon character on a bag of oranges, it will appeal to kids,” he said.


Just as there is a lack of clever commercials for healthy food, there’s a dearth of research on how to promote them.


“There are fewer papers studying how to get people to eat carrots more and more papers studying how to get people to eat cookies less,” he said.


While an aging Marlon Brando once said the only thing that provided him happiness was eating, Davis said messaging can help prevent others from having that perception.


“Aren’t there other things that make you happy?” he said, “like being healthy enough to spend a day with your grandkids without having to lay on the couch?”