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Fast Food Ads: 6 Ways to See Through the Hype

By Rachel Reiff Ellis
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Daniel Brennan, MD

You’ve heard it a million times: Fast food isn’t good for you. But burger-and-fry joints aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. Business is booming, and it seems like everywhere you look, there’s an ad telling you to come back for more.

Marketers are smart -- they know how to make fast food look so tasty, cheap, even fun. In fact, you’ll probably see four or five ads for fast food on TV today. Their goal is to get you to spend your money. It’s up to you to weed through the hype and choose what’s best for your body.

In Your Head

People who study how the brain works say that kids younger than 8 will believe almost anything ads tell them. So now that you’re older and wiser, that’s not a problem, right?

Actually, no, says Marlene Schwartz, PhD, the director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at the University of Connecticut.

“In some ways, you’re more vulnerable [to advertising] once you hit middle or high school than you were when you were younger, because you’re more independent,” she says. “You don't have a parent helping you make these decisions.”

Here are six ways to make good choices in the face of fast food ads.

1. Don’t get distracted.

Next time you see a fast food commercial, watch how long it takes before you get info about the food itself. Often, ads can be a lot of flash and not much else.

“They might have pictures of motorcycles and extreme sports and girls in bikinis,” Schwartz says. “And they’re trying to illustrate this wild, fast, exciting lifestyle, which they think will appeal to teenagers. It’s not really about the food so much as the image.”

2. Look past trendy terms.

Words like “natural,” “organic,” and “fresh” sound great, but you can’t always take them at face value. A trendy catchphrase doesn’t make a food a healthy choice.

“Even the word ‘healthy’ is pretty hard to define,” Schwartz says. “So those words don’t tend to mean anything.”

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