Food marketing works. At least, one can assume it does, otherwise companies would not spend so much money on their advertising budgets. In fact, many countries have some kind of regulation on fast food/junk food advertising towards children because of the potential health effects of food marketing. Whether advertising directly affects obesity rates is hard to determine on an individual basis, but there are some broader concepts researchers are looking at to determine how the brain responds to food marketing.
What can be studied:
--Studies show that people believe foods are healthier if they are marketed as healthier--and thus will underestimate calories in those foods. (For example, a sub sandwich sounds healthier than a cheese burger, so people tend to think it has fewer calories).
--Studies also show that people look at sizes offered rather than nutritional information when "judging" food calories. (For example, if you call something a small, people will guess it has fewer calories than if you call it a large).
--Studies have shown that size ranges also affect how people choose foods. (For example, it the sizes offered for a food are S, M, L, and XL, and a company removes the Small item, fewer people buy the Medium item because it's now the smallest.)
A 2006 study showed that if a food is marketed as healthy, people with obesity are more likely than people without obesity to eat more of that food. The theory researchers were testing was whether obese people were more susceptible to marketing framing-- if something is labeled healthy, or called "small size", or otherwise framed differently, do people of varying weights respond differently to such advertising? In the 2006 study, they were.
If that is the case, researchers then wanted to determine if bariatric surgery had any impact on how people respond to food framing. Researchers selected participants who were of average weight and those who were obese (and scheduled for bariatric surgery) and asked them to guess the calories in foods that were labeled healthy versus foods that were labeled indulgent. Obese participants guessed the "healthy foods" to be much lower in calories than the leaner participants guessed.
Researchers ran similar tests several months after bariatric surgery and found that the responsiveness of participants after bariatric surgery was comparable to the original leaner group. To summarize, patients who had undergone bariatric surgery were no longer susceptible to food marketing the way they were prior to surgery. Further research is needed in determining the reasons behind these changes, but it is good news for those planning on surgery. Somewhere in the process, either by learning, attention to labeling, or changes in brain chemistry, bariatric patients become less likely to be fooled by food framing as a marketing tool.
What this means for you:
If you are trying to lose or maintain weight, it is important to be aware of how advertising may affect your decisions. Ignore the flashy labels on the front of products. Watch for words like "low-fat", "sugar free", or "reduced--". Those may be good things, or they may be distractions. Look at the label instead. What's a serving size? What are the grams of protein, carbs, and fats in a serving? What other nutrients are in the product? Low-fat could mean loaded with sugar. Sugar free could be filled with sugar alcohols, which can cause stomach aches. When ordering from a restaurant, read the labels in person or online. Look at portion sizes. If marketing didn't work, companies wouldn't spend so much money doing it. Be aware and pay attention so that you can enjoy the treat foods and still make the best choices for your individual needs.
Source: Cornil, Y., Plassmann, H., Aron‐Wisnewsky, J., Poitou‐Bernert, C., Clément, K., Chabert, M., & Chandon, P. (2021). Obesity and Responsiveness to Food Marketing Before and After Bariatric Surgery. Journal Of Consumer Psychology. doi: 10.1002/jcpy.1221