Friday, May 22, 2015

Food advertisements: do they make you feel hungry, sexy or greedy?

Sex sells, we all know that. Marketing strategists have been using sexually arousing images and messages in advertisements for over decades, most likely having found its roots on tobacco packages in 1885. Food ads often contain sexual elements. Frequently, these ads promote fast foods, such as the ad by Burger King in 2014, but sometimes also healthy products such as the ad for Coca Cola’s new milk Fairlife  (2014). Sexual elements are used in advertisements because they are believed to catch our attention and make us feel positive towards the advertised brand. More importantly, they increase our arousal and thereby motivate us to obtain the advertised product (Reichter, 2002). 


Arousing advertisements induce us to consume more

Hot and cold cognitions influence consumer decision-making. Consumption in a “hot state” is driven by emotional motives (e.g. through feelings of hunger) and in a “cold state” by reflective processes (e.g. thoughts about a food allergy). Seeing, smelling, or touching a desired object can create a “hot state”. In such a state we experience an increased heart rate, blood pressure and sensory alertness; factors that motivate us to satisfy the urge associated with the arousal (Loewenstein, 1996).

This does not mean that viewing a sexually tinted advertisement makes us hit on the first person we come across on the street. In fact, neurological findings suggest that our brain processes different rewarding objects in a similar manner. Arousal can thus make us seek rewards in more than one area, regardless of the source of the arousal. Many studies provide evidence that sexual arousal, hunger or money deprivation can guide behavior to obtain rewards in any of these areas (Wyer & Xu, 2010). For instance, Festjens, Bruyneel, and Dewitte (2013) showed that touching men’s boxer shorts made females more willing to risk money to obtain chocolates and money.

Sexual stimuli can make you feel sexy, hungry and greedy. It is thus not surprising that advertisers use arousing images to promote their products. The use of sex in advertisements is often criticized as portraying women in a sexist manner. However, what is overlooked is that, perhaps not sex, but money is the factor that has most influence on human consumption behavior.

How money motivates behavior

Besides hunger and sexual arousal, money is an important motivator of human behavior. Lea and Webley (2006) describe money as a drug, saying that it mimics the neural, behavioral and psychological action of a chemical drug. It motivates humans in the same way as food and sex do. Psychological and behavioral economic research show that the desire for money motivates people to consume food, and that feeling hungry makes people less likely to spend money (e.g. Briers, Pandelaere, Dewitte, & Warlop, 2006).

Consumption goals can even be activated indirectly. For instance, Chen and Lurie (2012) investigated whether the state of a product can trigger people towards seeking rewards. They presented participants an image showing either a full or an empty iPhone battery. The participants were then asked to answer some unrelated questions about the iPhone’s design. After answering these questions they were offered a participant bonus of either money or cookies. They had to indicate how much of the bonus they would like to keep to themselves, and how much of it they would share with another participant. When participants had seen a picture of a low iPhone battery, their behavior was consistent with resource scarcity: they took more money and cookies for themselves.
Source: Chen and Lurie (2012)

Does money influence consumption?

Research on the motivational power of rewarding stimuli is not merely interesting for publicists who want to stimulate product sales. It is important that, as a consumer, we become aware of the influential nature of advertisements. While we might obsess about the unfairness of using sex in publicity, the mention of money and prices can have profound influences on us: making us eat more food and even motivating sexual behaviors. Marketing strategists know how to manipulate emotions to influence our consumption. For instance, a Dutch campaign promoting New York pizza as a “cheap and healthy alternative to students unhealthy eating habits”, used bodypainted nude women to hand out free pizza.

However, it is not yet exactly clear how money primes influence consumer behavior. Some psychological studies actually report contradicting findings, namely: that thinking of money leads to healthier and money-saving decisions. For instance, Tong, Zheng, and Zhao (2013) found that when people were primed with money, they more often chose a utilitarian product over a hedonic product (e.g. batteries over chocolate cake). A possible reason for this discrepancy is that money can trigger both positive and negative cognitions. If money makes us think about wealth or its buying capacity, it can trigger feelings of autonomy, confidence and strength and incite us to spend more money. However, if it activates thoughts related to a lack of money or our unpaid bills, it can trigger feelings such as weakness and distress, and in fact decrease our consumption.


Briers, B., Pandelaere, M., Dewitte, S., & Warlop, L. (2006). Hungry for money:  The desire for caloric resources increases the desire for financial resources and vice versa. Psychological Science, 17, 939-943.
Chen, Z., & Lurie, N. H. (2012). Low batteries Make You Greedy: The effect of product states on human behavior. Advances in Consumer Research, 40, 761-762.
Festjens, A., Bruyneel, S., & Dewitte, S. (2013). What a feeling! Touching sexually laden stimuli makes women seek rewards. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 24, 387-393.
Lea, S. E., & Webley, P. (2006). Money as tool, money as drug: The biological psychology of a strong incentive. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 29, 161-209.
Loewenstein, G. (1996). Out of control: Visceral influences on behavior. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 65, 272–292.
Reichert, T. (2002). Sex in advertising research: A review of content, effects, and functions of sexual information in consumer advertising. Annual Review of Sex Research, 13, 241-273.
Tong, L., Zheng, Y., & Zhao, P. (2013). Is money really the root of all evil? The impact of priming money on consumer choice. Marketing Letters, 24, 119-129.
Wyer, R. S., & Xu, A. J. (2010). The role of behavioral mind-sets in goal-directed activity: Conceptual underpinnings and empirical evidence. Journal of Consumer Psychology, 20, 107-125.

Almudena Classen is a PhD. student in the ULB Research Center for Social and Cultural Psychology. Her Ph.D. is funded by the Food4Gut project. 


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