The American Marketing Association defines marketing as "the process of planning and executing the conception, pricing, promotion, and distribution of ideas, goods, and services to create exchanges that satisfy individual and organizational objectives." Marketers use an assortment of strategies to guide how, when, and where product information is presented to consumers. Their goal is to persuade consumers to buy a particular brand or product.
Successful marketing strategies create a desire for a product. A marketer, therefore, needs to understand consumer likes and dislikes. In addition, marketers must know what information will convince consumers to buy their product, and whom consumers perceive as a credible source of information. Some marketing strategies use fictional characters, celebrities, or experts (such as doctors) to sell products, while other strategies use specific statements or "health claims" that state the benefits of using a particular product or eating a particular food.
Impact and Influence
Marketing strategies directly impact food purchasing and eating habits. For example, in the late 1970s scientists announced a possible link between eating a high-fiber diet and a reduced risk of cancer . However, consumers did not immediately increase their consumption of high-fiber cereals. But in 1984 advertisements claiming a relationship between high-fiber diets and protection against cancer appeared, and by 1987 approximately 2 million households had begun eating high-fiber cereal. Since then, other health claims, supported by scientific studies, have influenced consumers to decrease consumption of foods high in saturated fat and to increase consumption of fruits, vegetables, skim milk, poultry, and fish.
Of course, not all marketing campaigns are based on scientific studies, and not all health claims are truthful. In July 2000 a panel of experts from the U.S. Department of Agriculture supported complaints made by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine that the "Got Milk" advertisements contained untruthful health claims that suggested that milk consumption improved sports performance, since these claims lacked scientific support. In addition, the panel agreed with the physicians' claim that whole milk consumption may actually increase the risk of heart disease and prostate cancer, and recommended that this information be included in advertisements.
The tremendous spending power and influence of children on parental purchases has attracted marketers, and, as a result, marketing strategies aimed at children and adolescents have increased. Currently, about one-fourth of all television commercials are related to food, and approximately one-half of these are selling snacks and other foods low in nutritional value. Many of the commercials aimed at children and adolescents use catchy music, jingles, humor, and well-known characters to promote products. The impact of these strategies is illustrated by studies showing that when a majority of television commercials that children view are for high-sugar foods, they are more likely to choose unhealthful foods over nutritious alternatives, and vice versa.
Attempts to sell large quantities of products sometimes cause advertisers to make claims that are not entirely factual. For instance, an advertisement for a particular brand of bread claimed the bread had fewer calories per slice than its competitors. What the advertisement did not say was that the bread was sliced much thinner than other brands.
Deceptive advertising has also been employed to persuade women to change their infant feeding practices. Advertisers commonly urge mothers to use infant formula to supplement breast milk. Marketing strategies include giving women trial packs or coupons for several months of free formula. Often, women are not aware that supplementing breast milk with formula will reduce or stop their milk supply. When the samples and coupons are no longer available, women may try to "stretch" the formula by mixing it with water, unaware that diluting the formula places their infant at risk for malnutrition . Many groups have objected to the use of marketing strategies that include free formula and coupons, and infant-formula manufacturing companies have been forced to modify their marketing practices.
Other marketing strategies involve labeling foods as "light," meaning that one serving contains about 50 percent less fat than the original version (or one-third fewer calories). For example, a serving of light ice cream contains 50 percent less fat than a serving of regular ice cream. As a result, consumers mistakenly believe that eating light food means eating healthful food. However, they fail to realize that a serving of the light version of a food such as ice cream can still contain more fat and sugar than is desirable.
Food labels with conflicting information often confront consumers. For example, labels claiming "no fat" do not necessarily mean zero grams of fat. Food labeling standards define low-fat foods as those containing less than 0.5 gram of fat per serving. Therefore, consuming several servings may mean consuming one or two grams of fat, and people are often unaware of what amount of a food constitutes a "serving." In addition, foods low in fat may be high in sugar, adding additional calories to one's daily caloric intake. Too often, consumers mistakenly translate a claim of "no fat" into one of "no calories."
Other examples of conflicting claims include labels advertising foods as "high in fiber," without specifically indicating the presence of high levels of salt, sugar, or other nutrients . Also, labels advertising dairy products as high in calcium , and thus offering protection from osteoporosis , are often missing information relating to the high fat content and its possible contribution to the risk of heart disease.
Consumers are also misled by food comparisons. For example, one fruit drink may be advertised as containing more vitamin C than another, when in reality neither of the drinks are a good source of the vitamin. In addition, labels on some fruit drinks claim that the product "contains real fruit juice" when, in reality, the fine print reveals that one serving contains "less than 10% fruit juice."
Recommendations for Responsible Food Marketing
Consumers rely on product advertisements and food labels for nutritional education. The American Association of Advertising Agencies states that responsible food marketing strategies should: (1) avoid vague, false, misleading, or exaggerated statements; (2) avoid incomplete or distorted interpretations of claims made by professional or scientific authorities; and (3) avoid unfair product comparisons. Advertisers must also consider the long-term consequences or potential for harm stemming from their claims. While these recommendations are important in developed countries, they become even more critical in international marketing campaigns.
It is also important for consumers to recognize their role in evaluating health claims and product comparisons. While advertisers are aware of the need for truth in advertising, sometimes their desire to sell products over-shadows an accurate disclosure of product attributes. Advertisers should bear in mind that inaccurate or vague health claims have the potential to cause economic hardship, illness, and even death. Lastly, marketing strategies used in developing nations should be subjected to the highest standards of truth in advertising.
see also Eating Habits; Health Claims.
Virginia Jones Noland
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