May 29

The Role of Marketing in the Obesity Epidemic

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

In the 1970s, the U.S. government went from just subsidizing some of the worst foods to paying companies to make more of them. In the 1970s the farm bills reversed longstanding policies aimed at limiting production to protect prices and instead started giving payouts in proportion to output. Extra calories started pouring into the food supply.

Then, Jack Welch gave a speech. In 1981, the CEO of General Electric effectively launched the “shareholder value movement,” reorienting the primary goal of corporations towards maximizing short-term returns for investors. This placed extraordinary pressures on food companies from Wall Street to post increasing profit growth every quarter to boost their share price. There was already a glut of calories on the market, and now they had to sell even more.

This places food and beverage CEOs in an impossible bind. It’s not like they’re rubbing their sticky hands together at the thought of luring more Hansels and Gretels to their doom in their houses of candy. Food giants couldn’t do the right thing if they wanted. They are beholden to investors. If they stopped marketing to kids, or tried to sell healthier food, or anything that could jeopardize their quarterly profit growth, Wall Street would demand a change in management. Healthy eating is bad for business. It’s not some grand conspiracy; it’s not even anyone’s fault. It’s just how the system works.

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Given the constant demands for corporate growth and rapid returns in an already oversaturated marketplace, the food industry needed to get people to eat more. Like the tobacco industry before them, they turned to the ad men. The food industry spends about $10 billion a year on advertising, and around another $20 billion on other forms of marketing, such as trade shows, incentives, consumer promotions, and supermarket “slotting fees.” Food and beverage companies purchase shelf space from supermarkets to prominently display their most profitable products. They pay supermarkets. The practice is also evidently known as “cliffing,” because companies are forced to bid against each other for eye-level shelf placement, with the loser pushed “over the cliff.” With slotting fees up to $20,000 per item, per retailer, per city, you can imagine what kind of products get the special treatment. Hint: It ain’t broccoli.

To get a sense of what kind of products merit prime shelf real estate, look no further than the checkout aisle. “Merchandising the power categories on every lane is critical,” reads a trade publication on the “best practices for superior checkout merchandising.” They were referring to candy bars and beverages. Evidently, even a one percent power category boost in sales could earn a store an extra $15,000 a year. It’s not that they necessarily don’t care about their customers’ health; publicly traded companies, like most of the leading grocery store chains, are said to have a fiduciary duty to increase profits above other considerations.

Tens of millions of dollars are spent annually advertising a single brand of candy bar. McDonald’s alone may spend billions a year. The food industry now spends more money on advertising than any other sector of the economy.

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Reagan-era deregulation removed the limits placed on marketing food products on television to children. Now, the average child may see more than 10,000 TV food ads a year, and that’s on top of the marketing online, in print, at school, on their phones, at the movies, and everywhere in between. Nearly all of it is for products detrimental to their health.

Besides the massive early exposure and ubiquity, food marketing has become highly sophisticated. With the help of child psychologists, companies learn how to best influence children to manipulate their parents. Packaging is designed to best attract a child’s attention, and then placed at their eye level in the store. You know those mirrored bubbles in the ceilings of supermarkets? They’re not just for shoplifters. Closed-circuit cameras and GPS-like devices on shopping carts are used to strategize how best to guide shoppers towards their most profitable products. Behavioral psychology is widely applied to increase impulse buying. Eye movement-tracking technologies are utilized.

The unprecedented rise in the power, scope, and sophistication of food marketing starting around 1980, which aligns well with the blastoff slope of the obesity epidemic. Some of the techniques, such as product placement, in-school advertising, and event sponsorships skyrocketed from essentially zero to multibillion-dollar industries since the Eighties. This led one noted economist to conclude that “the most compelling single interpretation of the admittedly incomplete data we have is that the large increase in obesity is due to marketing.” Yes, innovations in manufacturing and political maneuvering led to a food supply bursting at the seams, with close to 4,000 calories a day for us all, but it’s the advances in marketing manipulations that are used to try to peddle that surplus into our mouths.

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