It is almost impossible to go a day without seeing some form of advertisement, whether plastered across large billboards, interrupting television programmes or personalised adverts online, which track your shopping habits by monitoring the websites you visit.
During the Olympics, all eyes will be on the competition, but those watching may be inadvertently processing adverts subliminally, according to Prof Nilli Lavie from UCL’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience.
When watching a sporting event, background adverts will receive little conscious attention, but “the brain will still process them,” said Prof Lavie. “The adverts will only be perceived very briefly but under some circumstances this would subject the viewer to subliminal processing. This means the viewer is not free to choose what they have processed,” she added.
A recent survey found that many parents would like to see a complete ban on advertising unhealthy foods before the 21:00 BST watershed. The poll showed parents feel pestered into buying junk food for their children because of adverts.
Cadbury, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola are all Olympic 2012 sponsors. “Millions of people are going to see an association between these brands and highly successful athletes. Companies wouldn’t spend all this money on adverts if they didn’t think it would increase their sales,” said Prof Stephenson.
Brands of habit
A spokesperson from Coca-Cola said that it will “increase the marketing budget for our no calorie, zero sugar colas,” while a McDonald’s spokesperson said that “sponsorship is essential to the successful staging of the Olympics.”
Linking two stimuli – in the case of the Olympics, a brand to an athlete – is what psychologists call priming. This is where exposure to one stimulus or event in close succession to one another become associated in the mind.
As soon as a brand becomes familiar, using its products can become a habit. For a consumer this can represent no longer having a choice, added Dr Sheela Keegan. Advertisers use encourage people to buy their products without thinking about it too much.
Although there is no specific research on the relationship between fast food adverts at a large sporting event and obesity, Dr Keegan believes such adverts could have a direct impact on the obesity epidemic, especially for people who already regularly eat unhealthy foods, as it becomes “difficult to change that pattern.”
“It is disappointing that the Olympics still feel the need to be sponsored by these companies,” he added.”