Lydecker and Grilo: Messages about weight, eating and race in Super Bowl advertisements

Thin is not always in when it comes to promoting food, drink, and other products during The Big Game, according to a new Yale study that examines weight and race in Super Bowl advertisements.

Researchers viewed 241 TV commercials that aired from Super Bowl XLVI in 2012 through Super Bowl XLIX in 2015. Using a detailed coding scheme, they screened the actors for body size and racial and ethnic diversity. Their expectation was that very few overweight or obese actors would be cast in the commercials, and that food and beverage ads would be more likely to feature Black and Hispanic actors since the rate of obesity in the United States is higher in those two groups.

Approximately 15 percent of commercials featured actors with overweight or obesity, and the actors with excess weight were primarily White, according to the study, which was published online September 22 in The International Journal of Clinical Practice.

“This suggests a potential change in media portrayal of body-size norms, but also mischaracterizes the people who are more likely to have obesity,” said Janet A. Lydecker, PhD, Associate Research Scientist in Psychiatry at Yale and the paper’s first author.

The representation of people with overweight in Super Bowl ads remains low given the prevalence of obesity in the U.S., but the authors said the use of some actors with overweight and obesity in commercials may signal a change in the media’s portrayal of normal body size as being exclusively thin.

Commercials were also screened for their use of humor, with the authors hypothesizing that ads with actors who had excess weight would be more amusing. Contrary to their expectations, however, humor and serious tone were similarly present no matter the actor’s body type.

The study also looked at the racial/ethnic and body size diversity of actors to discern whether commercial-makers used food to target minorities. The results revealed the food and beverage ads did not include Black or Hispanic people more than non-food ads.

“This is important because it suggests food/beverage marketers are not uniquely targeting Black and Hispanic individuals during the Super Bowl,” the research team wrote. “That is, because the Super Bowl has a diverse audience (with racial/ethnic diversity similar to the U.S. population), marketers cast diverse actors presumably with the hope of appealing to the general public.”

Carlos M. Grilo, PhD, Professor of Psychiatry and of Psychology, and Director of the Program for Obesity Weight and Eating Research (POWER) at Yale, is the study’s senior author. Other study authors are research interns Antonio Izzo and Gail Spielberger from the Quinnipiac University Department of Psychology.

The research was supported in part by National Institutes of Health grants.

This article was submitted by Christopher S Gardner on September 25, 2017.