All day, every day, we are bombarded with images promoting food of every type: television commercials for pizza, online ads for cheeseburgers, billboards for fried chicken, ad nauseam.
But new research shows these images — if viewed often enough — actually satisfy our cravings and diminish our desire to eat.
This discovery may come as a shock to snack-makers and food manufacturers, who invest heavily in ads that are supposed to stimulate our hunger.
The research, conducted at Aarhus University in Denmark, examined the different ways our perceptions of food affect our cravings.
More than 1,100 people participated in a series of online studies led by Tjark Andersen, a Ph.D. candidate at Aarhus’ Department of Food Science.
In one experiment, people were exposed to an online photo of orange M&M candies either three times or 30 times. Participants who saw the image 30 times had less desire to eat M&Ms than those who saw only three images of the candies.
Additionally, people who saw 30 images stated they would choose a smaller portion of M&Ms than the group that saw just three images.
“Your appetite is more closely linked with your cognitive perception than most of us think,” Andersen said in a statement. “How we think about our food is very important.
“You will receive a physiological response to something you have only thought about. That’s why we can feel fully satisfied without eating anything,” he added.
The researchers, who published their results in the journal Appetite, also looked at how the food’s color affected desire for it, by providing M&Ms in a variety of hues. The results didn’t change — people still wanted less of the food after viewing images of it 30 times.
Even when colorful Skittles — candies that have a different flavor for each color — were introduced, the results of the experiment were largely the same.
“If color did not have a significant impact, it implies that the perceived taste must be a contributing factor. However, our findings indicated that even the imagined taste did not have a major effect on satiety,” Andersen said.
The study may be of particular interest to advertisers, who have repeatedly come under fire for promoting foods that contribute to the obesity epidemic.
“There are plenty of experimental studies showing these ads are affecting people and actually causing people to consume more unhealthy food,” Brennan Davis, a marketing professor at California Polytechnic State University’s Orfalea College of Business, said in a statement.
“And we know that eating unhealthy food leads to higher rates of overweight and obesity,” Davis added.
The problem is especially acute with advertisements directed at children. A 2023 study, published in the journal Pediatric Obesity, found that YouTube “kid influencers” promoted food in 66% of their videos.
Despite a YouTube ban on food ads in children’s content, 42% of branded product appearances were for candy, according to the study, while 32% were for sweet or salty snacks, ice cream or sugary drinks.