In the minds of fast food marketers and chain restaurants, bombarding people with images featuring juicy hamburgers, frothy beers, and cheesy chips is the best way to brainwash them into craving low-cost, high-calorie foods. But new research suggests that the opposite may be true.
A study in the Journal of Consumer Psychology argues that people who see too many pictures of food will find it less enjoyable and, over time, may even stop buying it. The reason is "satiation," the physical equivalent of being totally fed up (no pun intended). When you're satiated, you can't stand to eat even one more chip. But satiation isn't only brought on by eating; it's also the result of looking.
The reason you see a Snickers bar and think "that looks good," is because your brain remembers the last time you enjoyed chocolate. "Your brain simulates what flavor the food is," explains Jeff Larson, a professor at BYU's Marriott School of Management and co-author of the study. "That simulation activates the same areas of the brain as when you're actually eating the food." And this can trigger satiation. Looking at candy won't literally make you full, says Larson, "but you’ll enjoy the food less. And over time, you may not want to buy that food."
In the study, one group of participants viewed 60 images of salty foods and a second group viewed 60 images of sugary foods. Both groups were asked to rate how yummy each picture looked. Then, everyone was given peanuts to eat and asked to rate how much they enjoyed the nuts. Those who viewed salty foods enjoyed the peanuts less and reached satiation faster than those who viewed sweet foods.
Importantly, the salty images included every kind chip, cracker, and nut—except peanuts. This showed that any number of salty foods could turn people off from any single item. Larson says that if participants been given caramels to eat, then the sugar group would have become satiated on sweets.
Which means that watching too many McDonald's commercials could turn you off of McDonald's AND Pizza Hut. And too many Coke commercials could turn you off of Pepsi and vice versa. In trying to out-tempt customers, food companies might only be hurting themselves.
Larson says that you have to see many images of food in order to trigger satiation. "Sixty pictures worked faster than 20 pictures. And people have to be paying attention to the ad in order for it to engage the taste sensors in the brain." Since TV commercials are often more absorbing than print ads, Larson speculates that they might lead to faster satiation. He says eight commercial spots is probably equivalent to looking at 60 photographs.
So what's the takeaway for advertisers? Food companies should focus more on breadth of advertising than depth. Instead of advertising multiple times in one show, instead advertisers should "put your money toward venues where you won’t get repeat viewers," he says.
Of course, chocolate may be the notable exception to these findings. The researchers considered using chocolate instead of peanuts as their test food, but according to Larson, "we needed a food that people can get sick of, and the latent liking of chocolate is so high that we might not have been able to detect a decrease."