A link between neuromarketing and obesity?

For us neuroessentialists, it’s immediately obvious that our brains control our weight. In a direct way, the brain regulates appetite, and feelings of hunger and satiety. In a more subtle way, the complex associations between motivation, reward and emotions can lead to behaviors such as emotional eating. In a third, even more removed way, our perception of taste can be altered by several stimuli. A recent study highlights this changing taste perception with a clever experimental paradigm in children.

The researchers were interested in assessing if placing the image of a popular character on the packaging of a product (this marketing ploy is called “character licensing”) is an effective way to sell food to kids. To test this, the researchers studied three foods: graham crackers, gummy bears and baby carrots. The participants in the study, children aged 4 to 6 years old, were presented with two packages of the same food item (for example, graham crackers). The only difference was that one of the packages had a sticker of a cartoon character (Scooby-Doo, Dora or Shrek) on it. The kids were then asked to say if one of the two foods tasted better, and if so, which one.

Are children that oblivious to this obvious and dubious marketing trick? Absolutely. Overall, children perceived the food items with the cartoon on them to taste better than the ones in the plain packaging. This finding was statistically significant for the “junk” food (the crackers and the gummy bears). As it turns out, character licensing is especially effective in children because they lack the ability to understand that the advertisement is meant to be persuasive. You would think that all you would have to do to solve the obesity crisis is to paste Elmo’s face on broccoli and apples, but the fact that the character licensing experiment didn’t work as well with the carrots suggests this wouldn’t necessarily do the trick and adds a level of complexity to this type of marketing.

What does this all have to do with neuroethics? This experiment acts as a stepping-stone for one of the latest “neuro” words to be coined: neuromarketing. What will happen when the food industry knows exactly which buttons to push for us to consume what they are selling? How can neuromarketing impact our notion of free will? Will neuromarketing eventually expand beyond the consumer market and become a form of mind control (neuropolitics)?

Your thoughts in the comments!

Reference: Influence of licensed characters on children’s taste and snack preferences. (2010) Roberto et al. Pediatrics, 126(1):88-93.

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