Taking a Lesson from the Junk Food Industry

Have you ever seen a Coca-Cola commercial? No, I mean really seen one. What are they selling? A refreshing beverage? Hardly. Coca-Cola sells happiness. Proof is provided by the closing image of the commercial below (“open happiness”). And this message is almost anywhere you look.



If you just watched the above commercial, you might realize that the content of it actually has very little to do with the drink and I can pretty much guarantee that Coca-Cola is actually doing very little to help any conflict between India and Pakistan. But this post isn’t about the “big, bad monster,” that is the Coca-Cola industry. Rather it is about the tactics that has made them such a large industry, as well as those used by the junk food industry in general. Because even though it seems they’ve been under harsh criticism lately due to the dangerous increase in obesity, I think they might have something to offer. And no, it’s not food.

Go to any junk food agency and you’ll likely find that their largest department is the marketing department. Aside from the fact that junk food is tasty, and highly addicting. a large part of our over-purchasing and over-consumption can be attributed to the way it is sold to us, especially to our youth. The amount of media interaction increasing dramatically over the years has made serious changes in how we receive information, and it looks like companies marketing snack food, fast food, and sugary beverages are masters of the game. These companies use every media outlet possible and even collect data to target their most “vulnerable” consumers.

Food and beverage marketing to youth in the U.S. poses a direct threat to health of our country. They are growing up in environments that are saturated with marketing of these products. And, as we know about one third of youth are overweight or obese and are likely to stay so as adults.  However, despite this knowledge, people continue to purchase products that are unhealthy. So obviously these companies are doing something right. And so, I propose that we take a look at their tactics and perhaps implement them for the better. That is, what if we used junk-food-advertising to increase healthy-food-consumption?

One thing the industry does is create immersive marketing techniques in which advertising is integrated into some other content so that it is almost indistinguishable. Things like online computer games that only work if you have a certain amount of point which you can only get if you buy a certain amount of a certain product. Youth are highly susceptible to immersive games, they get sucked into them; it makes them feel in control. So they do what they need to play these games, and if that means buying Big Macs then that is what they will do.

Mountain Dew ContestAnother tactic is through social media networks. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Youtube make it really easy for marketers to access a person’s web of social relationships. They somehow find a way to insert themselves into these interactions and conversations. They also have incentives like prizes and free products that are awarded for getting out their name or brand; things like “‘like’ this page for a free Coca-Cola T-shirt” or “Retweet for a chance to win a trip to Mars”. The use of these social networks exploit the idea of peer influence in which people are looking to model their friends’ behavior (and thus purchases).

These company’s are sly, too. They know exactly where to place their ads so that young people see them. You’ll see advertisements for soda and junk food mainly in shopping centers or places with entertainment. They also know young people use their mobile devices a lot. This helps them essentially track and follow people. They know what area you are in, the time and even the temperature. They use this information to get you to buy their product. For example, they know to send good deals during the lunch rush or to advertise a cold beverage on a hot day.

Which leads me to my next point, the collection of personal data. When people go online they are tracked, profiled and targeted for personalized marketing. Did you ever notice how after you search something on Google, almost every Facebook ad you see after that is somehow related to that search? (About 30 minutes ago I searched “Coca-Cola commercial” for this post and have seen at least 3 different Coca-Cola ads since.) These companies use software that analyze the patterns of your online behavior to purposefully target you.

The junk food industry invests enormous financial resources to fund the above mentioned tactics. And in return they receive exactly what they want, more people buying and consuming their products. But in the midst of an obesity epidemic, these strategies are dangerous. Unless that is, we use them to encourage healthier behaviors and better eating habits.

There is so much potential! We can start making games out of how many bags of carrots you buy at the supermarket. We can advertise more healthy food products on Facebook and Twitter; products like Kashi cereal bars, for example. We can use data collection and location-based marketing to help people find places where healthy food is available; instead of finding the nearest McDonald’s they can help us find the nearest Saladworks or local food market.

There is a lot of effort being made to change the eating habits of young people; things like healthy school lunches and policy changes. But these things can take time to implement and there are always those people who feel like they are being stripped of their freedom to eat what they want. But these marketing strategies hold the potential to change people’s behaviors without taking away anyone’s rights. And, if these tactics worked for the junk food industry, I’m sure it can do much good for the health food industry. So I say, let’s beat them at their own game.


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