Personalized Junk Food Ads: Impossible to Resist?

What could be more beautiful, irresistible or dangerous than our own name? Forget scents wafting from packages and promises of zen moments. Personalization might be the most powerful weapon food advertisers are using against us.

According to psychologists, humans are unconsciously attracted to things that remind us of ourselves. It’s called “implicit egotism.”

It’s why an email salutation that includes our first name is likely to catch our attention. At least, it’s likely to catch mine. As a copywriter, rationally I know that the author merely typed “name” in an auto-populating field and fired the message off to 10,000 people. But every time I see my name I still feel like I’m being spoken to directly. I’m more likely to keep reading. Sometimes I even feel a sort of bonding with the author.

We can’t help but notice and feel a positive association with our names, or even things that are similar to us (see also: homophily principle). And thanks to increasingly advanced ways of gathering data, marketers have ever more ways to hold up mirrors and mesmerize us with ourselves.

They use our names. They tailor ads based on where we live, where we’ve browsed. They’ll probably soon use demographic data, or who knows what, to generate ads featuring avatars that resemble the viewer. We’ll see our alter ego munching on a Big Mac and this will be eerily effective.

advertisingWhat concerns me, especially, is Coke. Its name campaign is passed off as a fun experience or even a chance to “buy a friend a Coke.” For those with unusual first names, they’ll get you anyway by guilting you into buying a Coke for “Buddy.” For “BFF.” For “Dad.”

Personally, I think buying junk food for other people is worse than buying it for yourself. It’s not a gift. It’s an obligation to drink something unhealthy. Or as one of my friends puts it, to drink something that tastes like there’s a sweater in your mouth. Should we be burdening our friends with 240-calorie, 65-gram-of-sugar mouth-sweaters?

A blogger writes on The Daily Egg:

“Customers aren’t brainless zombies. They know when they’re appreciated and when they’re sent just another canned response that happens to have their name on it.”

Of course we know. But… do we?

On some deeper level, it seems we are all looking for validation of the self. Consumer researchers Sucharita Chandran and Geeta Menon report:

“A robust finding that has been replicated in various contexts is that people selectively recruit information that favors the self (Menon and Johar 1997), presumably to maintain self-esteem (Taylor and Brown 1988).”

Buying a soda with your name on it might subconsciously boost your self-esteem. Researchers have also found that the brain activates when we hear our own name, so when Pandora ads start addressing you, look out.

No matter how conscientious the consumer becomes, the marketer is always one step ahead. In his book Spent, Geoff Miller says marketing is the new psychology. Marketers know us more intimately, sometimes, than we can even know ourselves.

Big Soda, ostracized by mayors and activists alike, is working smarter. Presumably other junk food marketers will follow suit. Personalization isn’t always a bad thing, but it’s something to be aware of. For instance, when you’re about to buy a bottle of sugar because it has your name on it.

What do you think of Coca-Cola’s name campaign? Fun? Creepy? Are you immune to it?

Related posts:
Is the “ritual” you enjoy at Starbucks a figment of everyone’s imagination?
Irrationally tasty (cough Teavana cough)
Why the promoters of healthy behavior should act like marketers, not lawmakers



I’m a health writer and graduate student. I'm interested in the wily side of health – self sabotage, persuasion, and why health campaigns so often manage to inadvertently piss people off.

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