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How to Avoid Food Marketing Traps

A few weeks ago, I was astonished to see Halloween candy already out in the local grocery store. I expected it around September (although even that’s early), but August?

I didn’t think too much about it, though, until I saw a segment of The Daily Show where Trevor Noah talked about it. He said that Halloween candy manufacturers are worried about their sales due to the pandemic, so to try to make sure they sell enough, they’re starting earlier. They’re also focusing more on family-sized packs because they’re expecting people to stay local for Halloween.

I don’t know why this surprised me, but it did. Is candy really the high priority right now?

But then it got me thinking of all the ways that foods are marketed to us so that we end up buying things we don’t need or even necessarily want. For example, I didn’t spot the candy in the store because I went down the candy aisle or even the seasonal aisle. They had big pumpkin cutouts over the candy, as well as a prominent display on the end of an aisle.

On my side, I can’t even think about Halloween candy right now. Halloween says “autumn” to me, and with recent high temperatures, I’m not in fall mode.

But other people might be excited by it – or they might think that if it’s going up early, they should get some now to avoid any shortages later on. These folks probably weren’t thinking about Halloween candy before but suddenly they want it.

If you fall into the second category and notice that you’re easily swayed by food marketing techniques, here are some ideas to help you avoid that.

Notice When It Happens

Can you tell you’re responding to marketing?

Sometimes it’s very easy to spot. For example, if you grab something in one of the displays at the cash register, you’re most likely getting that item because of where it’s placed. There’s a reason these are called “impulse buys.”

Similarly, if you brought a list to the grocery store and end up buying a bunch of other things that weren’t on the list, and it’s not because you forgot them, you’re responding to something in the marketing. It might be the packaging, getting free samples, or the location.

Other times it’s not as straightforward. I remember my dad telling me about a time that he suddenly wanted to buy Oreos but didn’t know why. He later realized he’d seen a very subtle image of an Oreo while reading online.

You might see something in a magazine, drive by a place with a particular advertisement, or see or hear a commercial for a certain food. If you weren’t thinking about it before and now you are, it’s a good bet the marketing is behind it.

It can be helpful to notice when this comes up, especially if you respond differently based on when you see it. If you’ve just had a meal or snack, you might not be as interested as you would be when you’re hungry. (This is why people say not to go shopping when you’re hungry.) Noticing these patterns will give you an edge in deciding how you want to respond.

Ask If You Really Want It

When you start thinking about or craving a particular food because of marketing, you have a choice about what you want to do. You can decide to get it or not, and both choices are valid.

A good question to ask is, do you really want the food? Take the Halloween candy. Maybe by talking about it, I’ve got you thinking about it and starting to consider getting some. Is it just because I’ve been talking about the candy, or do you really want it? Do you enjoy something about Halloween candy that’s different than other types of candy? Do you want the novelty of having it in August?

If you decide you really want the food, then it makes sense to get it. Just try to be mindful when you’re eating it to see if you like it as much as you thought.

If you don’t really want the food, you can still get it, or you can decide to hold off until you want it. Or you may decide that you don’t want to be pushed into buying something because of a clever advertising strategy, so you’ll pass on getting it.

The goal isn’t to have an arbitrary rule about how you’ll respond but rather to make the decision mindfully.

Consider Foods that Don’t Get Much Marketing

When these things come up, I also like to think about foods that don’t get as much marketing to see if there’s something else I might prefer.

For example, I love cucumbers, but I only like them when they’re in season. That’s when they’re crisp and refreshing, not listless and watery like they often are in winter. But I’m not going to see any advertisements for local cucumbers – I just have to know that they’re available this time of year from local farmers.

I also enjoy lots of Maine fruits, and the variety is bigger than I used to think. I still remember how surprised I was to learn that peaches grow in Maine, and now I often get some at the Farmers’ Market. And I love seeing the variety of melons and apples available, but again, I’ve never seen commercials for those.

These days, I try to take all of this into consideration when making decisions about food. I realize that it takes a little more work and some exploration to see what’s available, but it’s worth it.

Use Marketing as Information Only

Marketing isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You might see that a favorite food is on sale, or the marketing might remind you of something that you enjoy and haven’t had for a while.

The key is to be mindful of how you respond. Try to consider marketing as information only and not as an encouragement to buy something. Be mindful of whether or not you really want it and then decide what you’d like to do. And if you end up buying it, I hope you enjoy it!

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