Dr Emma Boyland is a lecturer in psychological sciences at the University of Liverpool. Her research focuses on the effects of food promotion on children’s food preferences, choices and eating behaviour.

Emma appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss the remarkable impact of food advertising on younger audiences, as well as her potential recommendations for the future.



5 takeaways about junk food marketing

  1. It’s not just about selling the food – it’s about the experience
    The evidence suggests junk food advertising has both short and long-term impacts on children. However, one of the most powerful effects it has is to stimulate an emotional response in the brain, in line with the messages and values communicated by that brand.

    “The kind of message that brand puts forward gets imprinted in their brain,” says Emma. She points to Coca-Cola as one example of a brand that themes its advertising around fun and a strong social life.

    Once those thoughts are placed into a child’s mind, and repeatedly reinforced through advertising on a range of media, they become very difficult to remove. Emma explains: “They start to form this belief about the brand and believe it’s superior to other brands.”
  2. It might warp a child’s sense of flavour and taste
    When one study presented children with identical food, but packaged it differently, the children reported differences in how the food tasted.

    In this instance, carrot sticks were given in both plain packaging and branded McDonald’s packaging. “They believed that the McDonald’s stuff tasted nicer,” says Emma.

    At the time, carrot sticks were not even available at McDonald’s, so the children were not basing their tastes on their previous experience. Emma concludes: “It was just purely having that logo on the wrapper was enough to make them [say] ‘hmmm, that tastes even better than the other stuff’.”
  3. Junk food advertising appears to make viewers instantly hungry
    Have you ever watched a drinks advert and found yourself instantly heading to the fridge? The effect of junk food advertising is equally powerful, according to Emma.

    Regardless of whether they were previously hungry, it appears that children who are exposed to junk food advertising find themselves ready to consume more food almost instantly.

    She reveals: “We don’t really know what’s going on in terms of how it creates that effect… but we do know that kids, particularly, will just eat more.”
  4. Over time, advertising starts to generate powerful brain responses
    When drug users or alcohol drinkers are shown a visual cue for their favourite product, the reward response connections in their brain can be seen lighting up under an MRI scan. The same is true for children and fast food advertising.

    It’s a trait among children that seems specific to food advertising, says Emma. “You can see differences in the brain reactivity between seeing a food advert and a non-food advert.”

    According to research conducted by Dr Amanda Bruce in Kansas, children don’t even have to see the food products to feel that reaction – simply being exposed to a fast food restaurant’s logo is enough to light up their reward response connections.
  5. A new TV watershed could be (part of) the solution
    Across the UK, television viewers are already familiar with the concept of a 9pm watershed. Before then, programmes featuring violent or sexual content cannot be shown.

    Emma believes that restricting junk food advertising until after 9pm – when “the youth audience drops quite dramatically” – would be a significant step forward.

    She has already held discussions with parliamentarians in Westminster about the proposal and received backing from Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, the chair of the Health Select Committee. “I can never be completely sure that it will happen,” says Emma, “but I’m optimistic that at least we’ll be in a shot of putting this forward.”

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).



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