Priming Effects of Television Food Advertising on Eating Behavior
Jennifer L. Harris, John A. Bargh, and Kelly D. Brownell
Objective: Health advocates have focused on the prevalence of advertising for calorie-dense low-nutrient
foods as a significant contributor to the obesity epidemic. This research tests the hypothesis that exposure
to food advertising during TV viewing may also contribute to obesity by triggering automatic snacking of
available food. Design: In Experiments 1a and 1b, elementary-school-age children watched a cartoon that
contained either food advertising or advertising for other products and received a snack while watching.
In Experiment 2, adults watched a TV program that included food advertising that promoted snacking
and/or fun product benefits, food advertising that promoted nutrition benefits, or no food advertising. The
adults then tasted and evaluated a range of healthy to unhealthy snack foods in an apparently separate
experiment. Main Outcome Measures: Amount of snack foods consumed during and after advertising
exposure. Results: Children consumed 45% more when exposed to food advertising. Adults consumed
more of both healthy and unhealthy snack foods following exposure to snack food advertising compared
to the other conditions. In both experiments, food advertising increased consumption of products not in
the presented advertisements, and these effects were not related to reported hunger or other conscious
influences. Conclusion: These experiments demonstrate the power of food advertising to prime auto-
matic eating behaviors and thus influence far more than brand preference alone.
Keywords: food advertising, priming, eating behavior, children, obesity
According to the U.S. Surgeon General, “Obesity is the fastest
growing cause of disease and death in America” (Carmona, 2003
paragraph 5). And the crisis is not unique to the U.S.; according to
the World Health Organization (2003), the obesity epidemic is “a
major contributor to the global burden of chronic disease and
disability” (p. 1). The trend is especially disturbing among young
people. Over the past 30 years, the percentage of children and
adolescents in the U.S. who are overweight or at risk of becoming
overweight has more than tripled to 37% and 34%, respectively
(Ogden et al., 2006).
This obesity crisis has been fueled by reductions in physical
activity, as well as overconsumption of foods high in fat and sugar
(Institute of Medicine [IOM], 2006). Health authorities believe
that the accumulation of unhealthy messages communicated to
children through food advertising is a leading cause of unhealthy
consumption (Brownell & Horgen, 2004; IOM, 2006). Every day,
children view, on average, 15 TV food advertisements (Federal
Trade Commission, 2007), and an overwhelming 98% of these ads
promote products high in fat, sugar, and/or sodium (Powell, Szc-
zpka, Chaloupka, & Braunschweig, 2007). Moreover, food adver-
tising to children portrays unhealthy eating behaviors with positive
outcomes. Snacking at nonmeal times occurred in 58% of food ads
during children’s programming (Harrison & Marske, 2005). In
addition to good taste, the most common product benefits com-
municated include fun, happiness, and being “cool” (Folta, Gold-
berg, Economos, Bell, & Meltzer, 2006; Harrison & Marske,
A number of reviews have examined the research on advertising
to children and conclude that food advertising leads to greater
preferences and purchase of the products advertised (Hastings et
al., 2003; IOM, 2006; Story & French, 2004). In addition, as
assessed through correlational and quasi-experimental studies,
heavier media viewing often predicts more unhealthy diets and
higher body weight among children (see IOM, 2006). A few
studies have also examined effects of food advertising on actual
eating behaviors, usually assessed by food choices following ex-
posure to advertising (see Hastings et al., 2003; IOM, 2006). One
study with high ecological validity exposed children at an over-
night camp to a daily cartoon with candy or fruit advertising,
PSAs, or no ads (Gorn & Goldberg, 1982). Over a 2-week period,
children who saw the candy ads selected fruit and orange juice as
a snack less often than the other children. The literature reviews
also highlight, however, the need for further research—
specifically, more studies that establish a direct causal link be-
tween food advertising and unhealthy diets. To begin to address
this need, Halford and colleagues recently demonstrated that
groups of children eat more immediately after viewing a series of
8–10 children’s food commercials than after watching commer-
cials for other products (Halford, Boyland, Hughes, Oliveira, &
Dovey, 2007; Halford et al., 2008; Halford, Gillespie, Brown,
Pontin, & Dovey, 2004). Additionally, these effects occurred at the
category level, (i.e., increased consumption transferred to foods
not included in the presented advertisements). However, the au-
Jennifer L. Harris, John A. Bargh, and Kelly D. Brownell, Department
of Psychology, Yale University.
Acknowledgments: This research was funded in part by Grant R01-
MH60767 from the National Institute for Mental Health to JAB and by the
Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. We thank Geoffrey Cohen,
Becca Levy and Marlene Schwartz for their helpful comments and sug-
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Jennifer
L. Harris, Department of Psychology, Yale University, P.O. Box 208205,
New Haven, CT 06520. E-mail: [email protected]
Health Psychology © 2009 American Psychological Association
2009, Vol. 28, No. 4, 404–413 0278-6133/09/$12.00 DOI: 10.1037/a0014399
thors did not obtain support for their proposed mechanism: spe-
cifically, that overweight children have greater recognition mem-
ory for food advertisements, which in turn leads to greater
The literature reviews also emphasize the need to extend food
advertising research beyond children; to-date, very little is known
about such effects on adolescents and adults. Finally, most re-
search has examined advertising for calorie-dense, low-nutrient
foods. As a result, we know very little about how advertising for
more nutritious food affects eating behaviors. The present research
addresses these gaps in our knowledge and utilizes a new approach
to study food advertising effects using contemporary social–
Advertising as a “Real-World” Prime
Social–cognitive theories suggest a subtle and potentially far-
reaching effect of food advertising on eating behaviors that may
occur outside of participants’ intention or awareness (i.e., uncon-
sciously; see Bargh & Morsella, 2008). Priming methods provide
a means to test for these automatic causal effects. In priming
studies, relevant mental representations are activated in a subtle,
unobtrusive manner in one phase of an experiment, and then, the
unconscious, unintended effects of this activation are assessed in a
subsequent phase (see Bargh & Chartrand, 2000). Priming re-
search has already demonstrated that a variety of complex social
and physical behaviors—such as aggression, loyalty, rudeness, and
walking speed—can be activated by relevant external stimuli (i.e.,
the primes) without the person’s intent to behave that way or
awareness of the influence (see Dijksterhuis, Chartrand, & Aarts,
2007). The mechanism through which behavior priming operates
appears to be an overlap or strong association between represen-
tations activated by the perception of a given type of behavior, and
those used to enact that type of behavior oneself (Dijksterhuis &
Bargh, 2001)–the same mechanism that creates tendencies toward
imitation and mimicry in adults (Bargh, 2005; Chartrand & Bargh,
1999) and which serves as a vital support for vicarious learning in
young children (Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne, & Moll,
An important real-life source of priming influences is the media,
including TV programs and advertisements. Exposure to aggres-
sive or alcohol-consuming models in media can prime aggressive
behaviors and alcohol consumption in the viewer (see Anderson &
Bushman, 2002; Roehrich & Goldman, 1995). Studies that have
focused specifically on advertising effects have shown that ads can
prime positive expectancies of the effects of alcohol consumption
(Dunn & Yniguez, 1999) and positive attitudes toward smoking
(Pechman & Knight, 2002).
External Cues and Consumption Behaviors
Research among adults confirms that external cues have a
significant influence on food consumption behaviors. Exposure to
the sensory properties of palatable food increased subjective desire
and consumption, even though participants were already fully
sated (Cornell, Rodin, & Weingarten, 1989). Subsequent studies
confirmed and extended this finding, showing that exposure to
sensory-related food cues increases consumption (Federoff,
Polivy, & Herman, 1997; Jansen & van den Hout, 1991; Rogers &
Hill, 1989). Moreover, food advertising typically focuses on the
immediate sensory gratifications of consumption (i.e., the “hot,”
appetitive features), making resistance to these messages even
more difficult (i.e., the “cold,” rational process of self-restraint;
Loewenstein, 1996; Metcalfe & Mischel, 1999). In light of these
findings, Lowe and Butryn (2007) proposed that palatable food
stimuli can trigger hedonic hunger, or “thoughts, feelings and
urges about food in the absence of energy deficits” (p. 432).
Consumption behaviors can also be activated through automatic
processes. External cues, not related to the sensory qualities of
food, (e.g., container size and shape, food variety, and portion size)
affect amount consumed without the consumer’s knowledge
(Wansink, 2006). The behavior of other people is another impor-
tant external behavioral cue, and people automatically mimic oth-
ers’ eating behaviors, including food choice and amount of food
consumed, without realizing they are doing so (Johnston, 2002;
Tanner, Ferraro, Chartrand, Bettman, & van Baaren, in press). The
unconscious nature of these influences is further established by
studies in which primes of thirst-related words or smiling faces,
presented subliminally outside of the participant’s conscious
awareness, increased beverage consumption among thirsty indi-
viduals (Strahan, Spencer, & Zanna, 2002; Winkielman, Berridge,
& Wilbarger, 2005).
Advertising for food and beverages communicates potentially
powerful food consumption cues, including images of attractive
models eating, snacking at nonmeal times, and positive emotions
linked to food consumption (Folta et al., 2006; Harrison & Marske,
2005). We propose that the messages presented in TV food adver-
tising similarly have the power to act as real-world primes and lead
to corresponding eating behaviors. Given the types of foods and
consumption benefits typically promoted in food advertising, what
is primed is usually snacking on unhealthy foods and beverages
(Harrison & Marske, 2005; Powell et al., 2007).
In the following studies, we experimentally test whether TV
food advertising, embedded as it would naturally occur within a
TV program, will prime, or directly activate, an automatic increase
in snack food consumption. Because these effects are hypothesized
to occur outside of conscious awareness, the intention or ability to
regulate impulsive tendencies should not affect the outcome.
Therefore, we predict that food advertising that conveys snacking
and fun (i.e., those typically shown during children’s program-
ming) will automatically cue eating behavior among adults as well
as children. In addition, in line with the Halford et al. (2004;
Halford et al., 2007; Halford et al., 2008) findings, we predict that
the advertising will affect consumption of any available foods, not
only those that were advertised.
We designed the studies to replicate conditions in which indi-
viduals are typically exposed to food advertising on TV, as well as
to minimize participant awareness that the experiments involved
advertising (vs. TV viewing, in general). All advertisements were
embedded within a TV program during naturally occurring com-
mercial breaks, and the total number of food advertisements was
consistent with the number typically presented during a similar
amount of programming time. Experiments 1a and 1b utilized
common types of children’s food advertisements as stimuli and
measured effects on snack food consumed by children while
405FOOD ADVERTISING AND EATING BEHAVIOR
watching TV. Experiment 2 investigated the effects of both snack-
and nutrition-focused food advertising on adult consumption of a
range of healthy to unhealthy snack foods. To further minimize
awareness of the true purpose of the experiments, the advertise-
ments were not related to the brands or types of foods to be
consumed by participants.
Experiments 1a and 1b
In Experiment 1a, we tested our primary hypothesis that
elementary-school-age children would consume significantly more
snack food while watching a cartoon that included food advertis-
ing. In Experiment 1b, we recruited children from a more ethni-
cally and socioeconomically diverse school district and added a
participant incentive ($20 gift card). Except where noted, recruit-
ing and experimental procedures were identical in Experiments 1a
In both experiments, children were randomly assigned to watch
a cartoon that included either food advertising or other types of
advertising and were given a snack while watching. Children
watched alone to eliminate potential imitation, social facilitation,
or self-presentation effects. Parents also completed a short ques-
tionnaire with information about their child.
Participants. In total, 118 children participated: 55 in Exper-
iment 1a and 63 in Experiment 1b; 56 girls and 62 boys; and 59
children each in the food and nonfood advertising conditions. The
two conditions did not differ significantly on any of the child
characteristics measured, including age, weight status, and ethnic-
ity (all ps � .16). We received complete data for 108 participants;
92% of parents returned the questionnaire. Children’s ages ranged
from 7 to 11 years (M � 8.8 years). To determine children’s
weight status, we utilized height and weight information provided
by parents and compared children’s body mass index (BMI) to
age- and sex-normed percentiles published by the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2007). As recommended
by the CDC, children with BMIs below the 5th percentile were
classified as “underweight,” those in the 85th to �95th percentiles
were classified as “at risk of overweight,” and those in the 95th or
higher percentiles were classified as “overweight.” Under these
criteria, 3% of our participants were underweight (n � 3); 62%
were normal weight (n � 66); 21% were at risk of overweight (n �
23); and 14% were overweight (n � 15). There was no significant
difference in children’s weight status between Experiments 1a and
1b, �2 (3, N � 107) � 4.52, p � .21; and the combined rate of
at-risk and overweight children (35%) was comparable to the 37%
incidence for children in the U.S. (Ogden et al., 2006).
We also obtained children’s combined race/ethnicity and prior-
week TV viewing from parents. Participants in Experiment 1a
were primarily white, non-Hispanic (95%), whereas our sample in
Experiment 1b was ethnically diverse: 61% were white, non-
Hispanic (n � 39); 20% black, non-Hispanic (n � 13); 10%
Hispanic (n � 6); 6% Asian (n � 4); and 2% other or mixed
ethnicity (n � 1). According to their parents’ report, children in
Experiment 1a watched very little TV (M � 1.1 hours per day).
Parents in Experiment 1b reported significantly higher child TV
viewing (M � 2.0 hours-per-day), t(107) � 4.77, p � .01; and that
their children were more likely to have a TV in their bedrooms
(48% vs. 4% for Experiment 1a participants), �2 (1, N � 107) �
25.95, p � .001. In Experiment 1b, we also collected child reports
of their own TV viewing: children indicated that they watched
significantly more TV (M � 3.2 hours-per-day) than their parents
reported that they watched, t(56) � 4.35, p � .001. This level of
child-reported TV viewing is comparable to the 3.2 hours-per-day
reported by 8- to 10-year-olds in a large U.S. study that utilized a
similar methodology (Roberts & Foehr, 2004).
Procedure and materials. Parents with children in participat-
ing schools received a letter inviting them to volunteer with their
children for a study to understand TV influences. In Experiment
1b, we also recruited six children from a summer camp in the same
school district. Parents received a description of the experimental
procedure. Parents who requested more information were informed
that we were measuring how food advertising affects eating be-
haviors, but asked not to share that information with their children
before the study. All parents provided written informed consent,
and all procedures and materials were approved by the university’s
Human Subjects Committee. Participants in Experiment 1a did not
receive compensation, and Experiment 1b participants received a
$20 bookstore gift card.
The children met with the experimenter individually at their
school or camp for approximately 30 min. in an unoccupied
classroom or conference room. For school participants, sessions
were held after school. If the child asked about the purpose of the
study, the experimenter informed her or him that we were inter-
ested in finding out about the kinds of things that children like,
including TV shows and foods.
Following a get-acquainted activity, the children watched a
14-min. episode of “Disney’s Recess,” a cartoon typically viewed
by 7- to 11-year-olds. In this episode, the class goes on a field trip
to a science museum. One-half of the children were randomly
assigned to watch a version that included four 30-s. food commer-
cials inserted during two designated advertising breaks. These
commercials promoted snack and breakfast foods of poor nutri-
tional quality using a fun and happiness message (a high-sugar
cereal, waffle sticks with syrup, fruit roll-ups, and potato chips)
and were chosen to represent the types of food commercials that
are most commonly shown on children’s TV (Powell et al., 2007).
The other half watched the same cartoon with four nonfood com-
mercials (games and entertainment products). All commercials had
aired during actual children’s TV cartoon programming.
Children also received a large bowl of cheddar cheese “gold-
fish” crackers (150 gr.) and a glass of water and were told that they
could have a snack while watching. (Advertising for goldfish
crackers was not presented during the cartoon.) The experimenter
then left the room, returned after the cartoon was finished, and
asked the children when they had last eaten prior to the experi-
ment. Participants in Experiment 1b also highlighted the programs
they had watched on the previous weekday and Saturday on a TV
programming grid. After the children left, the experimenter
weighed the remaining goldfish and recorded the amount con-
Separately, parents completed a short questionnaire that asked for
the number of hours and minutes their child had watched TV on each
of the past 7 days, whether the child has a TV in his or her bedroom,
how often the child ate a snack or meal while watching TV in the past
406 HARRIS, BARGH, AND BROWNELL
7 days, how much their child likes goldfish crackers, and their child’s
height, weight, and demographic information.
One debriefing was held for all children following completion
of the sessions at their school or camp to minimize the possibility
that children would share information about the purpose of the
study with future participants. Interested parents also attended, and
all parents received a debriefing in the mail.
Identical procedures were followed during the cartoon-viewing
portions of Experiments 1a and 1b, and the amount of goldfish
crackers consumed did not differ between the two studies ( p �
.68; see Table 1). Therefore, to increase the power of the statistical
analyses, we combined results for the two experiments in the
following analysis of eating behaviors.
As predicted, children who saw the cartoon with food advertis-
ing ate considerably more (45%) goldfish crackers while watching
(M � 28.5 gr.) than did children who saw nonfood advertising
(M � 19.7 gr.), t(116) � 3.19, p � .01, d � .60.
It is important to note that most child characteristics did not
predict or moderate consumption (see Table 1). ANOVAs were
conducted with advertising condition and child categories, includ-
ing weight status; gender; TV in the child’s bedroom; and white,
non-Hispanic versus ethnic minority as between-participants fac-
tors. All models showed a main effect of advertising condition, all
F(1, 105) � 7.03, p � .01. In addition, there were no significant
main effects for any of the child characteristics, all Fs � .75, ps �
.39, and no significant interactions with advertising, all Fs �1.13,
ps � .29.
Additionally, we found similar results when we conducted sep-
arate regression analyses to predict snack consumption using a
standardized version of each continuous variable, a dummy vari-
able for condition, and the interaction term. The amount of gold-
fish crackers consumed was not significantly correlated with
amount of time since the child last ate, child’s age, parents’
assessment of their children’s appetite, snacking while watching
TV in the past week, parents’ reports of their child’s weekly TV
viewing, or children’s reported TV viewing (collected in Experi-
ment 1b only; all ps � .29) or with any of the interaction terms (all
ps � .42). Only parents’ assessment of how much their children
liked goldfish crackers, � � .20, t(3, 104) � 2.13, p � .04,
predicted amount consumed. Therefore, regardless of the child
characteristics examined, children consumed more after viewing
the food advertising.
These results provide strong support for our hypothesis. Chil-
dren who saw food advertising ate 8.8 g. more during the 14 min.
they watched TV in this experiment. At this rate, snacking while
watching commercial TV with food advertisements for only 30
min. per day would lead to 94 additional kcal. consumed and a
weight gain of almost 10 pounds per year, if not compensated by
reduced consumption of other foods or increased physical activity.
Unexpectedly, of the child characteristics measured, only liking
of goldfish crackers (as reported by parents) predicted amount
consumed. We caution against making definitive conclusions
about differences in eating behaviors between different groups of
children, as some parent and child reports, including child’s weight
and TV viewing, may be biased. However, the lack of significant
moderating effects for any of the child characteristics measured
suggests the considerable power of food advertising to consistently
influence consumption across a highly diverse sample of children.
In general, then, the effect of food advertising was consistent with
an automatic link between perception and behavior and in line with
most other recent demonstrations of behavioral priming effects
(Dijksterhuis & Bargh, 2001; Dijksterhuis et al., 2007).
In Experiment 2, we expand on the above findings to predict that
food advertising will also prime eating behavior among an adult
sample. In addition, we examine whether effects on eating behav-
ior are simply due to exposure to images and thoughts of palatable
foods or whether the product benefits presented in the advertising
differentially affect consumption. Specifically, we hypothesize
that exposure to food advertising that promotes snacking, fun, and
excitement will prime greater consumption of snack foods than
advertising that conveys nutrition benefits. Although we did not
Goldfish Cracker Consumption and Advertising Effects by Child Characteristics in Experiments 1a and 1b Combined (Unless Noted)
Amount Consumed (gr.) Amount Consumed (gr.)
Other Ads Food Ads Other Ads Food Ads
Group 1 M (SE) M (SE) Group 2 M (SE) M (SE)
Experiment 1a (n � 52) 19.5 (3.0) 30.4 (3.0) Experiment 1b (n � 66) 19.9 (2.6) 27.0 (2.6)
Boys (n � 58) 19.0 (2.6) 30.5 (3.0) Girls (n � 51) 20.6 (3.2) 25.9 (2.9)
TV in bedroom (n � 31) 17.8 (4.1) 26.4 (3.7) No TV in bedroom (n � 78) 20.3 (2.3) 28.8 (2.5)
Under- or normal weight (n � 69) 19.4 (2.7) 27.7 (2.6) At risk or over-weight (n � 38) 20.3 (3.4) 28.9 (3,7)
White, non-Hispanic (n � 82) 19.6 (2.7) 30.7 (2.6) Ethnic minority (n � 26) 17.8 (4.6) 25.9 (4.8)
7-8 years old (n � 41) 18.1 (3.7) 30.3 (3.1) 9-11 years old (n � 65) 20.1 (2.5) 26.8 (2.9)
TV viewing (parent report): Less than
10 hours per week (n � 53)
20.0 (2.8) 30.5 (3.1) TV viewing (parent report):
10� hours per week (n � 52)
19.3 (2.9) 26.1 (2.8)
TV viewing (child report): Less than 3
hours per day (n � 27)† 19.3 (4.5) 28.2 (5.0)
TV viewing (child report): 3� hours
per day (n � 30)† 20.8 (4.6) 28.3 (4.3)
†Collected in Experiment 1b only.
407FOOD ADVERTISING AND EATING BEHAVIOR
specifically test the effects of advertising for different types of
foods, these messages are commonly used to promote calorie-
dense, low-nutrient food products in both adult and children’s food
advertising (Harrison & Marske, 2005), whereas the nutrition
message tends to be used in advertising for somewhat healthier
products. Finally, we examine individual differences in food ad-
vertising effects. Prior research has demonstrated that women who
habitually diet and monitor their weight (i.e., restrained eaters)
may be especially prone to increased eating when exposed to
external food cues (Federoff et al., 1997; Jansen & van den Hout,
1991). As a result, we hypothesize a general effect of snack
advertising on increased eating, but a more pronounced effect on
As in the first experiments, we attempted to replicate viewing
conditions in which participants would be naturally exposed to
food advertising. In Experiment 2, however, participants were not
provided with a snack while watching. Instead, they were asked to
participate in an ostensible “second experiment” to test consumer
products. In this second study, they tasted and rated snack foods
that varied in perceived nutritional value.
Participants. Participants were 98 university students between
18 and 24 years old. Restrained eaters (i.e., those with scores �15
on the Eating Restraint Scale; Herman, Polivy, Pliner, Threlkeld,
& Munic, 1978) included 31 women and 8 men; unrestrained
eaters included 29 women and 24 men. Participants were racially
and ethnically diverse: 61% were of white, European American
descent only (n � 55); 7% were black only (n � 7); 14% Asian
only (n � 13); 7% Hispanic only (n � 6); and 9% mixed race or
ethnicity (n � 9). Participants received introduction to psychology
course credit or $10.
Materials. A 16-min., abbreviated version of an improvisa-
tional comedy TV program (“Whose Line is it Anyway?”) was
used as the TV-viewing stimuli. The program included 11 com-
mercials (4 min. total), inserted during two commercial breaks.
Three versions were created; each version included seven of the
same nonfood commercials. In addition, one version included four
commercials for food and beverages with a snacking message that
emphasized fun and excitement (two fast-food products, candy
bar, and cola soft drink); another included four food and beverage
commercials with a nutrition message (granola bar, orange juice,
oatmeal, and an “instant breakfast” beverage); and the control
included four additional nonfood commercials. These commercials
were inserted into nonprominent positions during the commercial
break (i.e., not the first or last commercial) to reduce the likelihood
that participants would pay more than their usual amount of
attention to the food commercials.
Pretesting with a sample of college students confirmed that the
food advertisements communicated the intended product benefits
(see Table 2). The commercials were also matched on other
persuasion-related characteristics. Pretest participants reported
similar moderate levels of enjoyment for all commercials (M �
5.59 out of 10 for the snack ads, 5.53 for the nutrition ads, and 5.05
for the control ads), F(2, 158) � 1.20, ns. In addition, past
consumption of the foods in the snack and nutrition ads did not
differ significantly (M � 1.78 out of 6 for the snack ads and 2.11
for the nutrition ads), t(102) � 1.37, ns; nor did future intent to
purchase the foods (M � 4.78 out of 10 for the snack ads; M �
5.20 for the nutrition ads), t(102) � 1.37, ns. The only significant
difference found was that participants were less familiar with the
nutrition commercials (M � 1.13 out of 6) than the snack (M �
1.47) or control (M � 1.68) commercials, F(2, 158) � 6.91, p �
.01. Familiarity was low, however, for all commercials tested.
Procedures. All participants were tested between 3:00 and
6:00 p.m. to minimize initial differences in hunger. On average,
participants had last eaten 2.8 hours earlier (SD � 2.5). They were
informed that the first study examined effects of TV on mood and
were randomly assigned to watch one of the three versions of the
TV program. To increase the believability of the cover story,
participants were informed that they were in the “comedy condi-
tion,” and that the experimenter had kept the commercials to make
the viewing experience as realistic as possible. Before and after
watching TV, participants completed a PANAS current mood
assessment (Watson, Clark, & Tellegen, 1988). To assess hunger
without alerting participants that the study involved food, hunger
and thirst ratings were embedded within the PANAS assessment.
As with the mood measures, participants responded on a scale
from 1 (very slightly/not at all) to 5 (extremely) in response to
“How hungry/thirsty do you feel right now, at this present mo-
ment?” All participants watched in a small, comfortable room, by
In line with the cover story, participants were then asked to
move to another room, with a different experimenter. They were
Advertising Pre-Test Results: Assessment of Product Benefits Communicated in
Product benefits communicated
Snack ads (n � 49) Nutrition ads (n � 55) Comparison
Main benefit Any benefit Main benefit Any benefit X2(2, N � 104)
Nutritious or healthy 0% 2.0% 40.0% 90.9% 81.95���
All natural 0% 2.0% 16.4% 49.1% 29.42���
Good for snacking 40.8% 71.4% 1.8% 10.9% 81.95���
Exciting or fun 26.5% 71.4% 1.8% 18.2% 41.43���
Tastes good 57.1% 81.6% 20.0% 67.3% 15.27���
Convenient 6.1% 30.6% 1.8% 23.6% .47
Gives you energy 10.2% 22.4% 20.0% 45.5% 6.07�
� p � .05. ��� p � .001.
408 HARRIS, BARGH, AND BROWNELL
seated at a table with five premeasured snack foods, including very
healthy (carrots and celery with dip), calorie-dense, nutrient-poor
items (mini chocolate chip cookies and cheesy snack mix), and
items perceived to be moderately healthy (trail mix and multigrain
tortilla chips). They also received a bottle of water. Until this point,
participants were not aware that the study involved food. As in the
prior experiments, none of the snack foods tested had been adver-
tised during the TV segment. Participants were instructed to take
at least one bite of each and rate it on a variety of dimensions but
also told they could eat as much as they liked. The experimenter
then left the room.
After the participants finished the tasting, they informed the
experimenter, who removed the food items and asked them to
complete questionnaires to assess perceived healthiness of the
foods tasted, restrained eating, and demographics. These items
were assessed at the end of the session to avoid affecting eating
behaviors with reminders of health or dieting (other than those
presented in the advertisements). The weight of each food con-
sumed was recorded, as well as the total amount of time spent
eating. Finally, the first experimenter conducted a funnel debrief-
ing (Bargh & Chartrand, 2000) to probe for awareness of the
experimental hypotheses and effect of the advertisements on sub-
sequent eating behavior. Unaided recall of specific advertisements
was also obtained during the debriefing.
Results and Discussion
During the funnel debriefing, most participants indicated that
they had noticed the advertising, but believed our cover story that
the study involved TV and mood. To ensure that the following
analyses demonstrate effects of food advertising that occurred
outside of participants’ awareness, however, we eliminated the
data for the few participants (four each in the snack and nutrition
advertising conditions) who correctly guessed that the study con-
cerned effects of food commercials on eating behaviors or who
believed that the food commercials might have influenced what or
how much they ate.
As intended, participants rated the cookies and snack mix as
very unhealthy (M � 2.71 out of 10 and 2.31, respectively), the
vegetables as very healthy (M � 7.71), and the trail mix (M �
4.92) and multigrain chips (M � 4.92) as in between. In addition,
participants reported fairly high taste ratings for all the foods, with
the lowest ratings for the multigrain chips (M � 6.46 out of 10)
and the highest ratings for the vegetables (M � 7.64) and cookies
(M � 7.70).
Advertising effects on consumption. Participants ate the most
vegetables (M � 34.3 gr.; vegetables also weighed the most),
followed by cookies (M � 17.9 gr.), trail mix (M � 12.3 gr.),
snack mix (M � 9.4 gr.), and multigrain chips (M � 7.2 gr.). To
adjust for weight differences in the foods, we computed z-scores
for amount of each food consumed and averaged the standardized
scores to obtain a single food-consumption score for each partic-
ipant. According to this measure, a positive score indicates a total
consumed of “X” standard deviations above the sample mean, and
a negative score indicates a lower-than-average amount consumed.
To control for potential individual differences in our dependent
variables, we conducted all analyses using ANOVAs with adver-
tising condition, gender, and restrained eating as between-
participants factors. As predicted, the main effect of advertising
condition was significant, such that participants who saw snack ads
ate more (M � .51) than did control participants (M � .07) or
those who saw nutrition ads (M � �.13), F(2, 78) � 3.72, p � .03,
�2 � .09. An ANOVA to predict eating time also showed a main
effect of advertising, F(2, 78) � 5.05, p � .01, �2 � .12. Again,
participants who saw snack ads ate for the longest amount of time
(M � 13.1 min.) compared to the other participants (M � 9.8 min.
for the control and M � 8.7 min. for nutrition ads).
Planned comparisons of the two types of food ads to each other
and the control confirmed that participants who viewed the snack
ads consumed significantly more than those who viewed the nu-
trition ads, F(1, 49) � 8.57, p � .01, �2 � .15, and the difference
in consumption between snack ads and the control approached
conventional significance, F(1, 51) � 3.24, p � .08, �2 � .06. The
difference between nutrition ads and the control was not signifi-
cant ( p � .30).
As predicted, there was a trend for restrained eaters to eat more
overall than unrestrained eaters (M � .31 vs. �.01), F(1, 78) �
3.34, p � .07, �2 � .04. Men also ate considerably more than
women (M � .50 vs. �.20), F(1, 78) � 15.05, p � .001, �2 � .16.
The Advertising � Restrained Eating interaction approached sig-
nificance, F(2, 78) � 2.75, p � .07, �2 � .07, and the Advertis-
ing � Gender interaction was reliable, F(2, 78) � 3.25, p � .04,
�2 � .08 (see Figure 1). The snack advertising had powerful
effects on men and restrained eaters, with both groups consuming
approximately one SD more after exposure to snack ads versus
Advertising by Gender Interaction
Advertising by Restrained Eating Interaction
Figure 1. Interaction effects between advertising message and eating restraint and gender on total food
409FOOD ADVERTISING AND EATING BEHAVIOR
nutrition ads or no food ads. Female unrestrained eaters, however,
ate similar amounts across all conditions.
Potential mediators and moderators of the effects. We then
examined whether the effects of advertising on consumption be-
havior were mediated by hunger or mood. ANOVAs to predict
change in hunger and mood (before and after viewing) showed no
main effects of advertising ( ps � .58) or interaction effects on
change in mood ( ps � .50). The 2-way interactions between
advertising and both gender and restrained eating on change in
hunger were significant, F(2, 78) � 3.68, p � .03, �2 � .09 and
F(2, 78) � 2.86, p � .06, �2 � .06, but these effects were opposite
those found for consumption behaviors. Restrained eaters and men
reported feeling less hungry after viewing snack advertising (M �
�.41 and �.44) and more hungry after viewing nutrition adver-
tising (M � .44 and .54), indicating a complete dissociation
between reported hunger and eating behaviors.
We also examined potential predictors and moderators of
total consumption, including hunger and mood at the time
participants arrived at the experiment (Time 1) and after they
had watched the TV program (Time 2), as well as the number
of commercials recalled (awareness). Again, ANCOVAs to
predict total consumption using hunger, mood, and awareness
variables as covariates showed no significant relationship to
amount consumed (all ps � .20). Only one interaction between
these potential moderator variables and advertising condition
approached significance: advertising and hunger at Time 2, F(2,
78) � 2.61, p � .08, �2 � .06, (all other ps � .16). Further
analyses revealed that hunger immediately prior to eating was
related to amount consumed only for participants who had
viewed nutrition advertising (r � .57, p � .01). Hunger was
not, however, significantly related to amount consumed for
participants in the snack ads and control conditions (rs � .10,
ps � .59). These findings further support the direct influence of
the snack advertising on consumption, as effects were unmedi-
ated by subjective internal states like hunger.
Finally, we examined the relationship between taste and
healthiness ratings and actual consumption for individual foods.
Taste ratings were positively correlated with amount consumed
for all foods (ranging from r � .23, p � .05 for vegetables to
r � .45, p � .01 for snack mix), but perceived healthiness was
related only to the amount of vegetables consumed, r � .21,
p � .05 (all other rs � .10, ps � .34). ANCOVAs to predict
amount consumed of individual foods, using rated taste of that
food as a covariate, demonstrated significant main effects of
advertising on cookie, F(2, 76) � 4.01, p � .02, �2 � .10, and
multigrain chip consumption, F(2, 76) � 11.46, p � .001, �2 �
.23. In all cases, however, the direction of influence was the
same. Participants who saw snack commercials ate the most of
every food, regardless of healthiness, and those who saw nu-
trition commercials ate the least (see Figure 2).
Discussion. Experiment 2 demonstrates that adults are also
susceptible to the automatic effects of food advertising on
consumption behavior.1 These effects were extremely powerful
for men and restrained eaters. We also demonstrated that the
influence of the snack ads continued after exposure (such that
they carried over to the subsequent “second experiment”), and
that participants were not aware that they were affected. In
addition, as in the children’s experiments, advertising effects
could not be accounted for by participants’ hunger, and the
effects transferred to products that were not advertised during
the TV segments viewed by the participants. Snack advertising
also increased consumption of healthier snack options, includ-
ing vegetables, further supporting the automatic nature of the
In contrast, food advertising with a nutrition message appeared
to inhibit automatic consumption, as evidenced by the relationship
between hunger and consumption only for participants in the
nutrition advertising condition. Nutrition-focused advertising did
not, however, affect the healthiness of food consumed.
These experiments provide converging evidence of an auto-
matic, direct causal link between food advertising and greater
snack consumption, and further contradict industry claims that
advertising affects only brand preferences and not overall nu-
trition (Young, 2003). Overall, the findings were highly con-
sistent. In both studies, and across diverse populations, food
advertising that promoted snacking, fun, happiness, and excite-
ment (i.e., the majority of children’s food advertisements) di-
rectly contributed to increased food intake. In addition, as
previously found by Halford et al. (2004; Halford et al., 2007;
Halford et al., 2008), similarity between the foods provided and
those advertised was not required. Finally, these effects oc-
curred regardless of participants’ initial hunger, and amount
consumed after viewing snack advertising was completely dis-
sociated with adult participants’ reported hunger.
The potential health consequences of these naturally occur-
ring advertising priming effects on overall diet and attempts to
control unhealthy eating are far-reaching. Children may be most
consistently affected, yet snack advertising also increased adult
consumption, especially for men and those attempting to diet. In
addition, the effects persisted after the viewing session. There-
fore, it may not be possible for one to avoid influence simply by
not snacking while watching TV; TV viewing could also lead to
increased consumption during a subsequent snack or meal.
One limitation of our findings (as with most laboratory
experiments) is that real-world exposure to advertising stimuli
occurs in a wide variety of contexts, and we cannot be certain
that other situational factors (e.g., viewing with others, viewing
at other times of the day, or viewing for other purposes) would
not have moderated the advertising effects. To optimize both
external and internal validity, however, we imitated natural
TV-viewing conditions as closely as possible within a con-
trolled setting. We feel confident, therefore, that the increased
snacking was due to the advertising, and that these effects do
occur during real-world viewing.
Although our findings are consistent with a number of po-
tential priming mechanisms, the specific mechanisms through
which food advertising increased automatic eating behavior
cannot be identified with certainty. As many potential interven-
1 Although we did not obtain food advertising awareness in the first
experiments, we assume that children would be, if anything, less aware
than adults that food advertising might affect their consumption behaviors.
410 HARRIS, BARGH, AND BROWNELL
ing variables did not moderate the advertising-eating effects,
much of the effect probably occurred directly upon perceiving
the eating behavior of people in the ads and/or activating
concepts associated with consumption (e.g., Dijksterhuis &
Bargh, 2001). A motivational explanation is also quite viable
(Bargh, Gollwitzer, Lee-Chai, Barndollar, & Troetschel, 2001;
Shah & Kruglanski, 2002). Snack advertising may have primed
a short-term hedonic enjoyment goal, whereas nutrition adver-
tising primed a long-term goal of healthy eating, leading to
corresponding behaviors. In reality, the power of advertising
may be its ability to prime behaviors through multiple mecha-
nisms at the same time.
Another limitation of our findings is that we cannot pinpoint
the specific advertising features that affected eating behaviors.
To increase the ecological validity of the findings, we utilized
actual advertising stimuli. As a result, the stimuli may have
conflated the benefits promoted in the ads (i.e., snacking, fun,
and excitement vs. nutrition) with positive associations toward
the types of foods typically promoted in ads with those mes-
sages (i.e., nutrient-poor foods vs. “healthier” options). Our
findings suggest, however, that the effect of priming product
benefits was more powerful than the effect of priming specific
types of foods: The snack ads increased consumption of all
foods, including the healthier options, and the nutrition message
did not increase consumption of the healthier foods (in fact,
consumption of all foods was lowest in this condition). Further
research is required to confirm that priming snacking versus
nutrition benefits and not other features of the advertisements,
including specific types of foods or brands, triggered the effects
on consumption behaviors. In addition, the messages used to
frame food consumption in advertising are also likely to create
powerful effects on consumption, and these could be profitably
examined in future research.
Defending Against Advertising Influence
Further understanding of the mechanisms that produced these
priming effects is also needed to enable educators and parents to
more effectively protect children (and themselves) against un-
healthy food advertising influence. Wilson and Brekke (1994)
proposed that defense against unconscious “mental contamination”
requires awareness and understanding of how unwanted external
influences might affect us, as well as the motivation and ability to
defend against influence. As most adults in our study did not
recognize the potential influence of food advertising on their
eating behaviors, increased awareness will be an important first
step. These findings also highlight the need for media literacy
programs that go beyond teaching children how to analyze and
evaluate advertising messages and increase the public’s under-
standing of how advertising may affect them outside of their
awareness (Livingstone & Helsper, 2006).
Additional studies could also examine contexts that might
affect motivation and ability to defend against food advertising
priming effects. According to Baumeister and colleagues, self-
regulatory resources are limited and can become depleted and
unavailable for subsequent self-regulatory tasks (Muraven &
Baumeister, 2000). Food advertising effects could be especially
pronounced, therefore, in the evening “prime-time” hours when
most adult TV viewing occurs, following a day of self-control
efforts. Perhaps, under such ego-depletion or cognitive load
conditions, snack advertising might also affect female unre-
strained eaters. Additional studies could also examine whether
advertising that utilizes other consumption messages (e.g., sat-
isfaction or indulgence) would differentially affect motivations
Another important direction for future research will be to ex-
amine the priming effects of other forms of food advertising.
Increasingly, food companies are replacing TV advertising with
more subtle marketing strategies (Chester & Montgomery, 2007).
Future studies could examine whether consumption behaviors
modeled during TV programming and movies (through product
placements) or interactive websites involving food products also
prime automatic consumption behaviors. Other priming studies
suggest that even exposure to less overt food cues (e.g., brand
logos that appear on signs or websites) could affect food consump-
tion (e.g., Strahan et al., 2002; Winkielman et al., 2005).
In summary, our results demonstrate that TV food advertising
increases snack consumption and may contribute to the obesity
epidemic, and that efforts to reduce unhealthy food advertising
to children are urgently needed. In addition, they highlight the
need to increase awareness of the potential automatic effects of
food advertising on eating behavior. Current industry efforts to
self-regulate TV food advertising to youth are limited to chil-
dren 12 years and under (Council of Better Business Bureaus,
2006), but the present findings suggest that reduced exposure to
unhealthy food advertising would be beneficial for all age
Cookies Trail mix Snack mix
Figure 2. Main effects of advertising message on amount consumed for individual foods (controlling for taste
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413FOOD ADVERTISING AND EATING BEHAVIOR