Why are the foods that make us feel better – the foods that fuel our cravings – typically junk food?
It is no coincidence that our comfort foods aren’t normally healthy or organic snacks, but those high in sugars, preservatives, saturated fats, and calories. The abundance of advertising campaigns for junk food, especially targeted towards younger generations, have created a demand for junk food that rivals the prevalence of smoking in the 20th century.
Smoking was an icon of popular culture in the 1900s and on an upward swing until the 1950s, when a surge of research indicated that the habit was deadly. Tobacco companies as a collective refuted the research vehemently, recognizing the potential damage of these studies to their profits. They combatted the concerns by publishing “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers”, a declaration that tobacco companies would keep the public’s health concerns at the forefront of their values. This declaration started a charade that would last a half-century in a period where 16 million Americans would die from smoking-related health issues.
Tobacco companies produced a different type of advertising that depicted doctors and dentists smoking, cigarettes as something fresh, and even smoking as a way to protect your body from coughing. Now identified as deceptive advertising, some campaigns indicated that smoking was not bad for a person’s health, excessive smoking was bad. As outrageous as this may sound in the present, these health-based advertisements were effective in boosting cigarette sales and contributed to many preventable deaths. The issue was that Big Tobacco claimed to be working to make cigarettes healthier, when in fact their only investments were in large marketing budgets.
Big Tobacco vs Big Food
The similarities of the tactics used in the past when marketing tactics for tobacco companies is eerily similar to the modern day marketing tactics for the junk food industry. Food companies marginalize the health risks of junk food by stating that their food is not bad for a person’s health, the excessive consumption of food is the danger. These companies throw considerable funding into studies that support positions that benefits their bottom line, such as redirecting attention to sedentary lifestyles and inadequate diets. Both tobacco companies of old and food companies have lobbyists who have the ear of federal agencies and interest groups like the FDA, slowing the process of change.
In many ways, Big Food is even more powerful than Big Tobacco, as the globalization and spread of information has allowed a wider reach for large food companies. For example, the use of cartoon television and movie characters to promote unhealthy foods like Pop Tarts, sugary cereals, or fast food from American countries have spread around the globe. The dangerous path of junk food consumption starts at an early age and the attachment to unhealthy foods form habits that are hard to break. The largest global threat facing the upcoming generation is no longer smoking, but obesity.
Who is responsible for the widespread increase in obesity?
Advocates for corporations that manufacture unhealthy foods will stress that imbalanced diets and sedentary lifestyles are the root cause for obesity. While these factors are forces that contribute to an overweight population, they are secondary to the authoritative control of junk food marketing. Using a 360 degree tactic called immersive marketing, children are bombarded with junk food advertising in every aspect of their lives. It is not only marketed in TV commercials and print advertisements; it is introduced in schools, inserted into TV shows, plastered all over the internet, and has influenced toys and games. Immersive marketing is used to build a consumer culture starting from a young age, which influences spending habits of the parents and eventually those of the child as they age.
It could be said that parents have a responsibility to shield their children’s sensitive minds from junk food marketing, but it has become increasingly difficult to do so. These strategies have ensured that children are exposed to advertising at every moment in a day and all these actions promote junk food purchase habits to achieve a form of happiness. Even when parents impose limitations on exposure to junk food marketing, a child could develop cravings when sharing snacks with friends, on school field trips, or even drawn to a colorful discarded wrapper on the street.
How is it different now?
A simplified answer could be that there isn’t much difference. A single difference can be found in how these products are perceived; tobacco was seen as a luxurious pastime, whereas food is a human essential. The food industry is much larger and the range of companies that is encompassed by this umbrella is far greater than the few dominant tobacco companies of the 1950s. Many companies that produce unhealthy foods also have a healthier line of products, which diminishes the ability to villainize these companies for malicious intents.
The obesity epidemic is a well-known issue; obesity affects 34% of adults  and it comes with an increased risk of premature illnesses, including heart disease and diabetes. In fact, the term “adult onset diabetes” was supplanted by the more general term “type-2 diabetes” because diabetes onset was no longer exclusive to adults . Yet, the reaction to this epidemic is lackluster, which shows the effectiveness of junk food marketing. Spearheading change in modern times is much different from in the 20th century, as we see individuals now can communicate their thoughts and opinions to a much wider audience. It is important to realize the danger of the companies that produce our favorite munchies as profit-driven organizations who, like tobacco companies, realize that they are endangering their consumers’ health, but continue to sell their products.
 Mibank Q. (2009). The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar is Big Food. The Milbank Quarterly. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2879177/
Mitchell, Nia et al. (2012). Obesity: Overview of an Epidemic. Psychiatr Clin North Am. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3228640/