Just Ask Marketers: Calorie Info on Menus Won’t Work

This week a friend showed me the video of Louis C.K. talking about cell phones. He jokes about how we fiddle with our phones because we don’t like standing around in line, and we especially don’t like to feel alone.

And it made me wonder: is this the reason mandatory menu labeling isn’t working?

Because most of the time, consumers aren’t making conscious health choices. In the fast food line, we aren’t calorie counting or hunting down nutrition info… we’re busy trying to fix boredom and fill our inner void.

So, does this make reversing the downward spiral of American health impossible? Would it make government calorie labeling a colossal waste of $537 million in compliance costs?


Someone suggested that I’m “trying to dumb down Americans” in a post I wrote for U.S. News, where I argued for less focus on menu labeling and more focus on subconscious nudges toward healthy eating. The dissenting comments were in the Yahoo version.

It’s not that I think nutrition facts should be kept hidden. Rather, it’s that the best use of government spending in order to influence public health is probably to fight fire with fire.

Marketing principles = fire. Calorie counts ≠ fire. Americans’ still-widening waistlines seem proof.

It’s worth considering — and policymakers don’t seem to — that consumers are emotionally and cognitively vulnerable most of the time. We’re stressed out. Multitasking. Trying to distract ourselves from the fact that we’re alone, either for the moment or in that deep, eternal way.

And this is why advertising and environmental cues make most of our decisions for us. Marketers are good (better than government) at playing to the fact that half the time we’re not paying attention and the other half we’re making decisions emotionally. How else to explain McDonald’s popularity despite its viral Photoshopped burger video, or the enduring story of the Starbucks pumpkin spice latte “ritual”. Or even that we’re more likely to buy a soda just because our name is on it.

So what can we do? Is there any hope of a major shift in Americans’ eating habits? I think there is, but it will come from an understanding of human decision-making. The promoters of healthy behavior should act like marketers, not lawmakers. Or better yet, lawmakers should take a cue from Ben Goldacre and opt for evidence based policy.

If mandatory calorie counts aren’t working (they aren’t), it’s time to admit it and try something else.



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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