Research found that the mere sight of people eating junk food is enough to deter dieters from indulging in it.
Mental imagery, including that of food consumption, can activate similar neural networks to those associated with real-life actions or experiences.
The findings suggest that campaigns promoting healthy eating should incorporate and depict the consumption of unhealthy food, as dieters consciously associate it with a failure to achieve their weight loss goals.
One evening, at home. We’re comfortably seated on the sofa, watching our favorite TV show. An ad appears, showcasing a delectable burger in all its glory. The camera zooms in on each ingredient: the fresh salad, the tender meat, the creamy sauce, the crispy French fries, and a group of individuals savoring this delightful range of flavors. We may contemplate that our diet is about to suffer a setback. However, this isn’t actually the case.
In a series of studies published in the Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, we discovered that advertisements featuring people consuming junk food actually led dieting individuals to consume less. While this may appear contradictory, these findings align with previous research on mental imagery.
Recent studies demonstrate that merely envisioning ourselves engaging in actions or experiencing emotions activates similar neural networks to those associated with their actual execution or encounter.
What happens when we imagine ourselves eating?
The images we are exposed to throughout our lives hold the power to shape our experiences to a remarkable degree.
According to neuroimage studies, the mere sight of someone being hit by a hammer will fire up the neural networks in our brain that are associated with pain. As a result, these images will trigger emotions and behaviour consistent with feelings of pain.
Such effects also extend to food consumption. The field of consumption imagery refers to rich images of food consumption – for example, an ad showing the close-up of a pizza and someone eating it. Some studies have even indicated consumption imagery could cause people to wrongly recall having eaten the food on display.
Why is this important? This is important because simply thinking that we have eaten something can make us feel full. In 2010, researchers asked people to picture themselves eating either 3 or 30 M&M’s chocolates. They then handed them a bowl of sweets to eat.
People who had imagined themselves eating 30 of the button-shaped chocolates ended up feeling satiated and ate fewer sweets compared to those who imagined eating only 3. With our research, we decided to take this question to the next level and test if the effect holds when people see someone else eating in an ad.
On a diet, observing others eating makes us consume less.
We invited 132 students who were following diets to our lab at the Grenoble Ecole de Management to watch an advertisement. Half of them were shown an M&M’s commercial filled with consumption imagery: vibrant sweets, enticing colors, and a person enjoying them. The other half of the students watched an ad featuring two animated M&M’s at a supermarket checkout, devoid of any consumption imagery. Afterwards, we provided each student with a 70g cup of M&M’s and asked them to eat as much as they desired. Among the students, those who viewed the M&M’s advertisement with consumption imagery consumed fewer sweets compared to those who watched the ad without it.
We followed up this study with another experiment involving 130 students who viewed a hamburger advertisement. Half of the participants were instructed to visualize themselves eating the hamburger, while the other half were asked to imagine filming it. Subsequently, the students received a silver bag of chocolate-coated biscuit sticks to eat. Those who watched the advertisement and imagined eating the hamburger ended up consuming fewer chocolate-coated biscuits than those who only imagined filming it.
Both studies provide evidence that merely witnessing someone eating junk food or seeing images of junk food alone is sufficient to discourage dieters from indulging in it, at least temporarily.
How can dieting campaigns help individuals eat less?
In the subsequent study, we examined how we could leverage these findings to promote healthy eating. We hypothesized that dieting individuals would respond more strongly to healthy eating promotion campaigns that prominently featured unhealthy consumption imagery. To test this, we developed four advertisements aimed at encouraging healthy eating behaviors.
A total of 594 American adults participated in our online study. Each participant was randomly assigned to view one of the four ads. Subsequently, we asked them to imagine the following scenario:
“Imagine that you are about to have a snack, and you open a bag of chips. The bag contains 20 chips. How many potato chips would you eat RIGHT NOW?”
Individuals who viewed the campaign that required them to imagine themselves devouring the French fries expressed a desire to consume fewer chips compared to those exposed to the French fries campaign without consumption imagery. Furthermore, those who visualized themselves eating an apple were more susceptible to giving in to the potato chips than those who imagined themselves eating the French fries.
These findings challenge the prevailing approach of current public policy initiatives that rely on images of nutritious foods to promote healthy eating. Instead, our research suggests that healthy eating campaigns should incorporate and depict the consumption of unhealthy food. Indeed, individuals on a diet who imagine themselves eating junk food consciously associate it with a setback in achieving their weight loss goals.
What is the takeaway for individuals?
In today’s society, the emphasis on health and well-being continues to grow. If you are among the many individuals who have made dieting and healthier eating their top resolution for 2023, our advice to you is to refrain from averting your gaze when seemingly enticing advertisements appear. Instead, wholeheartedly engage with them, picturing your lips reaching out for the forbidden food. As scientific research suggests, this approach may effectively reduce your unhealthy eating habits.