Can You Resist $107 Worth of Advertising?

"The food industry spends more than $33 Billion — with a B — each year on advertising and promotion. In contrast, the National Cancer Institute spends $1 million a year to promote fruits & veggies.

Surely, the NCI isn’t the only one on our side, but still... this imbalance paints a clear picture of what we’re up against."

I read this blurb last year on Eating Rules, a blog I respect and regularly visit. (PS: I wrote a guest post there that I'm particularly proud of... have a look!)

Okay. This particular quote, believe it or not, has been bugging me for more than a year, and I just couldn't figure out why (yes, I'm obsessive like that). There's clearly an element of defeatism about it--something I hate to read in food blogs, because I believe consumers should take their power and their decision-making capabilities into their own hands.

There was something else wrong with the implicit logic here, but I just couldn't put my finger on it. It wasn't until the other day that I figured out exactly what it was.

Here's what I mean. $33 billion is a lot, right? I mean, that's an incomprehensibly large amount of money to everyone--except perhaps to dudes like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett.

So when we think about "a clear picture of what we're up against" and that clear picture includes incomprehensibly large sums of money, it's easy to think we're all doomed, isn't it? Nobody can fight off $33 billion bucks of advertising, right? Sigh. Yeah, I give up. Pass me the Doritos.

It shouldn't surprise readers here at CK when I call bullshit on a thought process like this. So I'm going to break out my calculator and do some math--and prove that we're actually "up against" something that's hilariously easy to resist.

The truth is, that $33 billion of food advertising spent annually in the USA works out to $107 per person per year.

You don't think you can resist $107 worth of annual advertising? Nine dollars a month? You're going to cry uncle and give away your ability to choose your own food in the face of nine bucks a month?

Are you so incapable of thinking for yourself that you'd willingly sell your power and your free will at that low a price?

Readers, share your thoughts!

Related Posts:
Prices, Zombies and the Advertising-Consumption Cycle
Ten Thoughts On the True Value of Brands
Told to Eat Its Vegetables, The New York Times Wrings Its Hands
How to Own the Consumer Products Industry--And I Mean Literally Own It
The Economics of Wasteful Foods
Stacked Costs and Second-Order Foods: A New Way to Think About Food Costs
A Reader Asks for Help

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Anonymous said...

Yes, but it is damn hard. There I admitted it.
On Friday, (Before Irene) I went to the grocery store to get kitty litter, batteries & (junk food).

I wanted one of those single serves warm chocolate deserts - they did not have it (maybe that is one of those things that is no longer available) So I got a box mix. (I did not have my recipe & I was not in the mood for the full double boiler production.) All because I had (still have) ice cream in danger of melting should we have lost electricity & ice cream sure as heck tastes good on a brownie.
I wanted the single serve brownie - right away. Because I apparently cannot resist the advertising.

Laura said...

These days, I don't even think it's a whole $107/person. Think about all the wasted advertising in TV commercials that no on ewatches these days. I think the majority of that spend is on TV commercials, but more and more people (myself included) are using DVRs to skip right past all of that.

I don't find it hard at all to resist advertised products. Those are usually the packaged products, and I rarely go in those aisles of the grocery - maybe once every few months. Pretty much anything advertised (processed foods) is bad for you, and anything not advertised (fruits, veggies, raw meat) is the stuff that should comprise the bulk of your meals.

chacha1 said...

Hey Dan, I wonder if you factored in the billions of dollars of advertising by pharmaceutical manufacturers if the number would be a little more, um, persuasive.

I mean, when you think about it, the most heavily-promoted drugs are ALL designed to treat disorders that are more effectively (and with fewer damaging side effects) treated with diet and exercise - in the majority of patients.

All these ads do is create the expectation that the patient can take a pill instead of fixing their nutrition deficits and getting more activity.

On a different note, I would really be interested to know if the beef and pork industries get any benefit from their taxpayer-dollar-supplemented advertising. I've never seen an ad for the brands I buy, just for the meat industry as a whole. Of course that is undoubtedly a function of (as Laura notes) what TV I watch/magazines I read, and when.

Re: single serve brownie: LOL.

Daniel said...

I love the comments so far, good insights. And I hadn't really thought about the fact that a huge portion of advertising essentially falls on deaf ears.

There's an old joke in the ad industry: "half of all ad budgets are wasted--we just don't know which half."

Which means that really the "non-wasted" spending per person is $4.50. Even more easy to resist.


Daniel said...

Chacha, interesting questions.

I don't really know what to make of the beef industry or pork industry (or milk industry) ads and whether they're effective or not. They aren't that effective on me, but I write a blog that talks about part-time vegetarianism. :) What do other readers think about the effectiveness of these ads?

And regarding drug ads: I was poking around and looking at estimates of drug industry spending on direct-to-consumer ads and while it's a big number, ($4.8b a year according to Nielsen, $6b by some other guesstimates I saw), it's relatively small compared to food advertising, and it only works out to another $1.60 in spend per person per month. Not that much more "persuasive" at least incrementally speaking.

Hehe and I don't konw about you, but once I hear all the warnings about diarrhea and other attractive and appetizing side effects these ads are required to list, I'm usually "un-sold" by these ads.


chacha1 said...

Wow, that's a surprisingly low number (re: pharma ads). Must just be the channels I watch! My vintage is showing!

Well, that's good anyway. And yeah, just listening to the recitation of side effects is enough to make my renew my vows re: healthy eating and yoga.

Industry ads: it just tripped a curiosity switch because I so specifically buy "non-conventional" meat and dairy products when it's at all possible.

Bing Wu said...

The real question should be, can you individually resist $33B of advertising. Is advertising directed individually? Is every food mfg saying "Here Joe, is your $9 worth of ads?"

Well, if they spend $100,000 on a billboard, each of us is individually being hit by $100,000 worth of advertising, right? The beauty is that every $ reaches as many people as can possibly see it, and sometimes that's a lot of people.

Daniel said...

Bing, I hear you, but you can really only think of the billboard as $100k of advertising directed solely at a single individual under one condition: if you were to be strapped down, with eyes pried open, A Clockwork Orange-style, for the full term of the placement of the billboard. Hehe, of course after that much exposure, I think the ad would have its opposite intended effect.

I just want to make sure we're thinking about this from a clean accounting standpoint. :)


Andrew @ Eating Rules said...

Dan - First, thanks so much for your kind words about my blog. Also, apologies for coming late to this discussion!

My point was the enormity of the scale of what we're up against, not the advertising itself.

It's a David-and-Goliath situation, and I was using advertising spend as an indicator of the overall problem. That $33 Billion is just a tiny cog in the machine of "Big Food."

Yes, they may be spending "only" $107 on advertising per person. But they're spending even more than that on packaging design (expertly designed to manipulate us), research and development (designed to manipulate through taste, whether it's healthful or not), lobbying (food policy is such a huge component of this), and so much more.

I certainly didn't mean to be defeatest in my post, as I am actually an optimist at hear. Yes, I get frustrated sometimes, but I also see people every day who are fighting -- and winning -- the battle against Big Food!

Daniel said...

Andrew, thanks for starting off this conversation in the first place--that's what this is all about.

But I disagree that it's a David and Goliath situation. If anything, we the consumers are the Goliaths. As I've said many times before here at CK we are the ones who decide if products sell or not. No product will appear on our store shelves for long--unless we consumers keep it there.

The bottom line is that until there are hired goons in the grocery store force-feeding us Doritos and Pepsi, we have to admit and accept that we are the ones who willingly pull products off the shelf, fish money out of our pockets and pay for the food industry's products.

Once again, though, a great conversation. You and I are staking out some interesting, if different, ground here.


Andrew @ Eating Rules said...

Yes, this is a good discussion, and one well worth having!

I'm definitely a believer in "Personal Responsibility" first, and you are the person who decides what you put in your mouth (there are obvious exceptions, of course).

However, I also believe that it needs to be a level playing field, and right now it's not even close. There are many other factors involved, and what people think is a free choice may actually be one that's highly influenced and manipulated by factors they're either not aware of and/or that are out of their control.

Yes, I agree that collectively, consumers vote with our wallets, and that collectively, we have the potential to make an impact. (A good example of this is Gluten-Free foods... I recently noticed that my local Whole Foods has an entire aisle dedicated to Gluten-Free foods. They're only there because they sell, of course!).

However, individual consumers are far less organized and cohesive than Big Food. Divided, we fall... or something like that.

I wrote a bit about the subject of personal responsibility back in July... did you see that post?

Daniel said...

Okay, fair enough. But a level playing field in what sense? Who chooses to respond to advertising or not by buying? Do you really believe that consumers are so powerless that they can be so easily manipulated by a food indsutry that spends just nine bucks a month per person?

I just don't think it's a helpful prism to look at consumers as effete in this way. I believe we should be telling consumers to vote with their wallets and drive the market where they want it to be. Your citing the success of gluten-free foods is a great example of this.

Heck, reader can spend 15 minutes perusing your blog and be permanently innoculated against food advertising for life. We need to be telling consumers that they are powerful, not that they are overmatched.


Andrew @ Eating Rules said...

Good points.

I agree that people have the power to affect change -- that's why I've issued the October Unprocessed challenge again (which is all about personal choice in what we eat)!

I also like your positive message about empowering readers rather than being defeatist. I'll definitely keep that in mind as I'm writing in the future. Thanks! :)