Outdoor Food Ads May Persuade You to Pile on the Pounds

New research sheds light on the link between marketing and obesity

    • January 29, 2013

“Living in a neighborhood that’s home to lots of outdoor food advertising may increase your chances of becoming overweight or obese,” said Lenard Lesser, MD, a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Clinical Scholar (2009-2011). His new study is the latest work to reveal yet another link between the built environment and health.

“Determining why people eat certain foods and how they are influenced is a very complex process,” Lesser said. To test his hypothesis about the relationship between weight and outdoor advertising, Lesser and his team analyzed a telephone survey of adults, ages 18 to 98, from parts of California (Los Angeles near Drew University) and Louisiana (New Orleans near Tulane University).

They matched the self-reported data on body mass index and soft drink consumption to the number of food or non-alcoholic drink billboard advertisements in each area. After controlling for race, age, and socioeconomic status, Lesser found that “the higher the percentage of food advertisements in a community, the greater the odds of obesity among the residents.”

In the article “Outdoor Advertising, Obesity, and Soda Consumption: A Cross-Sectional Study,” published January 25  in BMC Public Health, Lesser reported that “for every 10 percent increase in food advertising in a community, there was a 5 percent greater chance of the residents being overweight or obese. The risk may seem small, but when compared to people who live in communities with no food advertising, those living in neighborhoods where 30 percent of the outdoor advertisements were for food were 2.6 percent more likely to be obese.

The “See” Food Diet

Experiencing an overwhelming desire to eat a hearty meal after strolling by a six-foot image of a juicy burger, with a side of fries, is caused by more than the power of suggestion, Lesser explained. “We know from other studies of nutrition that your body responds to visual food cues very quickly. As soon as you see food, your stomach begins to produce gastric juices for digestion and your blood sugar drops to accommodate the food your body assumes you are about to eat.” Both activities may consciously or unconsciously trigger hunger pangs and your desire to indulge in a delicious meal.

Because this cue to eat may happen easily and often in a community liberally decorated with photographs of tempting fare, Lesser suggests people take action to protect their waistlines and their health from this type of advertising.

Slimming Down Your Community

“We found that outdoor food advertisements are more common in low-income, minority communities—areas where there may already be high levels of obesity and related health problems,” Lesser said. “That may be because residents of high income communities fight to keep food billboards out of their neighborhoods.”

Eliminating billboards altogether may be tough because, Lesser adds, “freedom of speech laws do not allow us to keep all outdoor advertising out of a community, but residents may get together to prevent the placement of food billboards. Policy-based solutions might include a tax on food billboards or warning labels suggesting that the images can have a negative impact on health.” Lesser, a family physician at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, conducted the research during his term in the RWJF Clinical Scholars program. It is his most recent study in an ongoing body of work on how to help Americans battle obesity and follow more nutritious diets.

Read more about Lesser's work here and here.
For an overview of RWJF scholar and fellow opportunities, visit www.RWJFLeaders.org.