How to fight back against unhealthy ads

06.16.16 |

The world around you affects your health.
That might sound obvious to say, but if you think about how most people approach health, it’s dramatically overlooked. Outside of the Optimal Health Community, conversations about health talk about two things and two things only: diet & exercise. That’s it. If you want to be healthy, eat the right foods and hit the gym.

These things matter, but they are exclusively internal. The external, your environment, is important to address as well, but so many people don’t.

The more healthy choices you make about your environment, the more you can insulate yourself from the challenges and dangers of a world organized around Habits of Disease

Improving your environment

In Dr. A’s Habits of Health, we talk a lot about things you can do to improve your environment, like painting your walls blue, using brighter lights in your kitchen, switching to different plates, and surrounding yourself with people that support and encourage you to pursue your health goals. In other articles, I’ve described this as your health bubble. The more healthy choices you make about your environment, the more you can insulate yourself from the challenges and potential dangers of a world that has organized itself around Habits of Disease.

It turns out that people we admire—like celebrities and performers—can influence our health choices. A study in the journal of Pediatrics found that out of 65 music celebrities (the likes of Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake) promoted 57 different food and beverage brands and the majority of them were unhealthy. How much can a celebrity endorsement affect the choices we make? NPR recently published some highlights:

  • When the rapper Pitbull picked up a Dr. Pepper endorsement, they reached 4.6 million impressions and their target demographic of Latinos saw a 1.7% increase in sales.
  • Young people who enjoyed “hit songs” containing mentions of alcohol brands were more likely to consume alcohol.
  • Television ads have been documented to influence “children to prefer and request high-calorie and low-nutrient foods and beverages.”
  • Though advocacy groups are actively working to cut back on food advertising targeting the under 12 group, little advocacy exists for teenagers.

All of this is clearly bad news, but you might be thinking to yourself, “I’m not a teenager anymore. How does this affect me?”

For many of us, our daily habits were forged when we were young. After all, those are the years where we explore and try new things. Our minds are open and we’re trying to figure out who we are. It’s not a stretch for me to predict that some of your strongest habits and tastes were formed in your younger years. You might have picked a favorite drink or snack, and you might have discovered the vice of emotional eating at that time too.

You might not be as influenced by a Beyonce Pepsi endorsement now as you would have been a few decades ago—but given what we know about the power of media, there is probably still some influence—you might be working to unravel a habit that was the product of a childhood hero endorsing a product.

That’s years of practice with a Habit of a Disease that had its original roots watered by your admiration for someone. Wow. That’s a tough challenge! It will take work to break it, but you can do it.

Tips on breaking the Habit of Disease

And here are some tips on how:

  • A big part of advertising is geared toward keeping customers they have rather than getting new customers. If you love Pepsi, seeing more Pepsi commercials helps to keep you thinking and drinking Pepsi.

Action: DVR your favorite shows and skip the commercials so that you see less ads for unhealthy foods. Bonus: watch less television in general.

  • As human beings, we are hardwired to look up to people with great charisma and impressive talents. You don’t have to stop loving your favorite musician just because they endorse an unhealthy food, but you should try to find champions of health to look up to.

Action: Find healthy people close to you and in the celebrity tier to follow on social media, filling your feed with more messages about health. Bonus: Work to become one of those leaders for someone else!

  • Habits, at their core, are more Pavlovian than you might think. We train our minds to automatically anticipate a “reward” for a stimulus. Sometimes that stimulus is our boss yelling at us, or maybe that stimulus is feeling tired after a long day at work.

Action: Identify the stimulus that makes you reach for your favorite unhealthy snack and spend the next two months replacing that one behavior with something healthier. Bonus: Find a way to make activity, like a nice walk, a reward!

  • The world around us might influence the decisions we make in a powerful way, but with the right approach and a little bit of grit, we can take back that power and make the choices that help us live longer, healthier lives.