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Does banning junk food ads work?

(22 February 2021)

Box of donuts wrapped in a locked chain

PhD Candidate Aarron Toal on the psychology behind our cravings.

In 2020, the UK Government announced a ban on junk food advertising before 9pm. This followed the ban on in-store deals like ‘buy one get one free’ on unhealthy foods. There are also restrictions on where promotions can be placed in-store for foods high in fat, salt and sugar, such as those chocolate bars you sneakily add to your basket at checkouts.

These intervention strategies seek to control unhealthy consumption choices and prevent even more health crises as the waistline of the population continues to increase. Fuelled further by the pandemic, the health of the nation has never been taken so seriously.

But where does the craving for a doughnut or cheeseburger come from? And what new perspectives must social marketers or policy makers consider, when designing such an intervention strategy to control unhealthy choices?

Triggering behaviour

Evolutionary psychology offers a different way to understanding consumer behaviour. Whereas psychologists usually seek to investigate the immediate triggers of a behaviour in order to establish a causality, those committed to flying the Darwinian flag are interested in understanding why that behaviour exists in the first place. One way to do this is by identifying those evolutionary pressures that shaped it.

Origins of the sweet tooth

Some instincts we possess today are not suited to the modern, overabundant world we now find ourselves in. Many evolved in response to overcoming the challenges our hunter-gather ancestors faced living in an environment fraught with dangers and food scarcity.

Viewing our sweet tooth in this perspective, cravings for energy rich foods can be seen as an evolved, adaptive behavioural trait from a time when food was both scarce and took a considerable amount of energy to obtain.

Appealing to temptations

The one thing fast-food brands provide is fatty foods fast, appealing to our evolved food preferences for quick, high calorific foods from a time when such resource was scarce.

So, will removing all temptation from screens and shelves have the desired effect of reconditioning our innate desires, reducing the waistline and getting us healthy? Well, viewed from an evolutionary perspective, perhaps not.

Considerations

Social marketing initiatives rarely consider these biological roots of consumption behaviour. It is commonly believed that exposure to fast-food advertisements causes obesity, so regulations on this type of content will address such unhealthy choices. However, this approach does not consider or attempt to deal with why cravings for energy rich foods exist in the first place.

Ultimately, any attempt to optimally control or influence consumer desires requires to first acknowledge their Darwinian roots of how they came to be.

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