For just seventy-five cents more, you can make it a combo with a bottomless basket of chips. And a drink. With free refills.
In 1987, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the average American was no more than 14 percent overweight. Today, the average American is at least 15 percent overweight. But of course, the Americans of 1987 were not yet given the option of Fourth Meal or “extra fries with that.”
While fast-food restaurants cannot be pinpointed as the sole cause for this nation’s fattening obesity problem, it is clear that marketers and advertisers are feeding on the weaknesses of their consumers. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a cycle. Ultimately, who is feeding whom? Restaurants feed consumers with their products, but consumers, in turn, feed food marketers with ideas for new combination deals and promotions. These ‘combo’ food deals may financially seem to be in the best interest of both parties, but may ultimately cost the consumer his figure, or more burdensome, his health.
Nutritionist Audrey Lightsey says there’s more to obesity than just looking fat. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, back pain and increased pressure on the ankles can all stem from obesity, which is now considered 50 percent above one’s prescribed body mass index.
Obesity generally stems from overeating. Clinical nutritionist Ala S. Reddy says that people become overweight when they consume more calories than their bodies require:
“It is important to take into consideration number of calories going in through consumption and out through exercise. Metabolism, and the activities someone performs daily, affect the number of calories needed and the number needed to be burned off,” Reddy says.
Athletes, construction workers, or trainers can afford to eat a fourth or even a fifth meal at the rate their bodies burn calories. However, the average half-baked couch potato may not be able to enjoy that luxury, but does anyway.
Perhaps overeating can be attributed to marketing and advertising by restaurants that promote overindulgence. For instance, Taco Bell’s Fourth Meal commercial encourages the abandonment of the commonly followed breakfast-lunch-dinner routine. Now, we have Fourth Meal to break our fast. The television ads say it’s so common that “Everyone’s a Fourth Mealer.”
Additionally, there is the concept of “super-sizing” everything. Maybe consumers just want more ‘bang’ for their buck, or maybe they’re just that hungry, but additionally, most restaurant wait staff are required to mention the side items and promotions which may add only a menial quarter or dollar to the overall price of the meal. During my last visit to a movie theater, the sign at the concession stand read: “Please tell my manager if I forget to mention the combo meal.”
But from a health perspective, nearly all diets designed for weight loss and maintenance, including Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig, solicit portion control.
University of Florida advertising professor Robyn Goodman says Americans look at the value of a purchase, thus becoming accustomed to larger portions.
“If we don’t see a heaping plate of food, we think we’re being cheated,” she says.
JCPenny professor of marketing Richard Lutz said he agrees.
“Don’t super-size,” he says, “just make it difficult for people to buy big portions.”
Goodman says that while advertising may not directly cause over-consumption and obesity, it does make larger portion sizes and greasier foods seem normal or healthy.
“The influence of advertising is minor, but it does contribute to a culture which normalizes overeating,” she says.
Even then, Goodman says that restaurant marketers and advertisers are not forcing consumers to do anything they wouldn’t have already done.
“You’re looking at it in terms of the magic bullet, which is isn’t,” she says, “that is, I put out an advertisement, and you go do what I say you should do, but that’s not how it actually works.”
Goodman explains that advertising usually targets an audience that is already programmed, perhaps not strongly, to buy or do something.
“You gotta’ have some kind of predisposition, like a want or need,” she says.
In the case of Taco Bell’s Fourth Meal, we can take the example of our beloved couch potato. Her eyes glaze over as she watches television mindlessly; the ad for something ‘melty,’ crunchy, spicy and grilled appears, and she’s got her shoes tied and keys in hand, ready to hop into the car to pick up some late night T-Bell.
Lutz says he thinks late-night advertising would cause a lot of impulse purchasing.
“The ad comes on and you feel: Taco Bell versus stale popcorn? I’m there,” he says.
Generally, though, there is a target audience and there’s already somewhat of a demand for a product. Lutz cites McDonald’s as an example, which makes 16% of its profits during the hours of 2 a.m. to 5 a.m.
“For some, it might be a routine, just a regular snack,” he says, “but then there are the people who clearly have the idea planted in their minds after seeing the ad.”
Lutz doesn’t see ethical problems with targeted advertising because ultimately it is up the consumer to decide whether to respond or not. As long as the ad is not aimed at a disadvantaged population, for instance children or the elderly, advertisers can promote the way they like.
While these ads are not aimed specifically at children, kids are affected as well. Reddy says that children develop their eating habits from their parents. Father-son eating habits are clearly exhibited in the television ad for Dominos’s Oreo pizza, a 10-inch pizza made of entirely Oreos. The ad features a father and son working through an Oreo pizza. Such is their love for delicious food that they both have grown Oreo crumb beards. The son looks longingly at the father’s fully-grown Oreo beard, hoping to one day attain the same.
“Advertising is just one out of lots of forces that lead them to making poor choices,” Goodman says. “It’s one of the pieces to the puzzle, though no one knows how big a piece of that puzzle it is.”
While it may seem that advertisers are taking advantage of consumer weaknesses, it is the consumer’s choice, and he or she can still make a healthy one, regardless of the restaurant. Consumers can circumvent the effects of advertising by choosing smaller-sized or healthier items when dining on-the-go. The same Taco Bell that promotes Fourth Meal also has figure-friendly options. For instance, tacobell.com cites ordering “fresco style” as a healthy alternative: Customers can replace cheese and sauce with a freshly prepared salsa of diced tomatoes, white onions and cilantro, cutting calories and grams of fat; McDonald’s offers five kinds of salads and even fresh fruit as alternatives to burgers and milkshakes; Burger King offers three kings of garden salads and even fruit juices that can be ordered in the place of fries or sundaes.
Lutz says that the bottom line is that marketers and advertisers are thinking about whether certain promotions would offer an improvement in sales and profits. Restaurants need business and consumers, “You gotta’ eat,” but it’s up to you to pass on refills.