Consumption Ignorance: Food Marketing Creates Confusion for Generation Y

26 May


This study examines the relationship between food marketing and Generation Y’s consumer ignorance through an analysis of participant knowledge and advertising buzzwords.  Participants between the ages of 18 and 50 where chosen to answer questions regarding what they found healthy, whether they find nutritional labels useful and if they are able to choose which product was the healthier choice in a lineup.  Interview participants were asked in-depth questions as to if they knew what nutritional values their purchased products had by looking at only the front cover of the food products package.  A content analysis was conducted to see how often food marketing buzzwords were broadcasted through advertisements in shows popularly watched by America’s Generation Y population.  Most of Generation Y was found to be generally aware of what was healthy, as well as what buzzwords are used to deceive them but still cared to purchase them.  The research concludes that food product marketing left Generation Y participants unsure of whether their purchases were the right ones, and were unable to accurately decipher what nutritional values a product offers them.

Keywords: Food Marketing, Advertising, Generation Y, Generation X, Nutrition, Buzzwords




This study takes a look into the effects food marketing has had on Generation Y’s consumption habits.  Media trends continue to alter the perceptions of American’s as to what is believed to be healthy and nutritional. Although most shoppers are increasingly more conscious of nutritional values and fat content, many fall victim to research and food marketing techniques. These techniques have the ability to find a health benefit in any food product to appeal to the consumer. The goal of this study is to research if food-marketing techniques have had an effect on Generation Y’s consumption habits and if their perception of what’s healthy is skewed by buzzwords.  This research seeks to bring to light the effects food marketing has on Generation Y and the confusion it causes. 

Review of Literature

Throughout my research of literature I’ve found many scholarly articles throughout the database that cover the topic of food marketing.  Although surveys and analysis have been completed in the past, I have found few that have been completed in the past five years.  More importantly, few are focused on young adults growing accustomed to shopping, many of whom are now preparing their own meals.

Food marketing has had many controversies throughout the years: using buzzwords throughout their campaigns, or claiming nutritional benefits, all the while deceiving consumers.  In 1995, Andrews and Maronick discuss six important issues that were raised in the Stouffer Foods case. “Conveyance of relative and absolute claims, multiple ad claim interpretation, the use of control ad groups and open-ended questions, pre-existing beliefs and the role of control ad groups, the role of control questions and their interpretation, and the processing of disclosure information”.  The purpose of their article is to help offer guidance for those preparing cases with evidence for the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) consideration (Andrews, Maronick, 301).  Although it is not a scholarly research article, it provides a basis as to where food-marketing research began, and a corporation’s responsibility to its public.  This article was helpful as it showed the importance of research done correctly, however it lacked actual and reliable information for me to trust in my food marketing research. 

Andrews, Burton and Netemeyer laid the groundwork and have provided building blocks for many other scholarly researchers. The author’s primary question of interest was whether nutritional claims influence consumer beliefs in a manner that may be potentially misleading. They conducted this research using three factors: Ad claim type (general and specific), disclosure and knowledge (Andrews, Burton, & Netemeyer, 2000, p. 33).  Although it was conducted 10 years ago, their results still provide important knowledge.  Provided results show that although nutrition claims enhance perceptions of sodium content, the perceptions did not extend to any additional knowledge future health complications that might come from diets with high sodium.   Most importantly, the subjects in their research “provided more favorable (and erroneous) evaluations of absolute nutrient content for comparative nutrient claims than for control ads without such nutrition claims (Andrews, Burton, & Netemeyer, 2000, p. 39).

Scientific evidence throughout the years has linked the rise of dietary choices to health.  “The value of researching consumer behavior is unimaginable as there are numerous indications that the average American diet deviates significantly from the dietary recommendations of public health authorities” (Ippolito, Mathios, 1991).  The 2005 dietary guidelines emphasize the pyramid scale of fruits and vegetables; whole grains; fat-free or low-fat dairy; lean meats, poultry and fish; and low amounts of saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol and salt among many other items (USDA, 2009).  Do consumers know what a healthy diet is, or do they create their own out of ignorance? (Osgoodby, 2010).

To further stress this point, the general public is unknowingly consuming products that claim to be healthy and wholesome, when in fact they are not but are allowed to be marketed in such a way that the consumer becomes confused.  Redmond provides a deeper look into how misled a consumer’s physical quality of life and economic growth has and will be affected in the long run (Redmond, 2008).

In 2003, Wansink and Chandon focused their research on whether or not Americans consume more of something if it is labeled as “low-fat”.  This article also asks the question of whether or not serving-size information can eliminate potential bias. Although some of Wansink and Chandon’s research methods deceived their participants, it also provided important information. 

Unlike most articles that compare like-things such as two different brands of the same product, I found this article to be rather interesting in that it compared M&M’s and low-fat granola against each other.  Although granola is perceived to be healthier than M&M’s, research has found that that isn’t necessarily so, depending on how much is consumed in a single sitting. Participants in their study of food products with “low-fat” labeling had shown increased perceived serving sizes and decreased perceived number of calories across food and consumer types.  Additional research found that low-fat labels make people feel less guilty about how much they eat (Wansink & Chandon, p. 610).

The information provided by Wansink and Chandon has proven to be more helpful in my research because of its simplistic research methods and targeted participants.  Andrews, Burton and Netemeyer focus on “low-fat” but also use “1/3 less salt” and “healthier” to give the reader a greater understanding of where food-marketing buzzwords have been taken throughout the years.

The research discussed above proves an understanding of the struggles food marketing has had throughout the decades and how little it has changed within the past 10 years.  Through movies such as “Super Size Me”, media reports of both adult and childhood obesity and food-induced diseases such as diabetes, and lactose intolerance, it is of great importance to American’s to continue to provide today’s youth with truthful, reliable information that is not conceived in such a way that continues a decline in the consumers quality of life. 

Research Question

R1       Do food-marketing buzzwords affect the perception of Generation Y’s nutritional purchases?

R2       Do Generation Y consumers know the nutritional values of the foods that they are purchasing?


H1       There is a relationship between consumer ignorance and food marketing.


Participants and Media Content

The sample participants for the survey were both male and female adults, ages 18 through 50, with at least a high school degree to be sure that they had the knowledge and capability to read and understand food nutrition labels and that they were of Generation X or Y.  Survey participants were contacted through the social networking website as well as emailed survey invitations and interviews.

In-depth interview participants were contacted through email to set up a personal meeting.  General technology and oral communication were used to build a relationship with the subject and acquire information in a comfortable and ethical manner.  Products in question were selected from their own purchases.

A content analysis was conducted to note the amount of marketing and advertisement techniques targeted on television toward Generation Y.  Results were taken during prime time shows, and late night television during advertisement breaks.



The sample size was a total of 24 respondents, 12 being from Generation X and 12 from Generation Y.  The invitation was distributed to 60 people with a personal message giving an overview of the survey as a whole, and what their provided information would be used for.  Once the survey was completed, participants were sent a message thanking them for their time.  This method was both a cost and time efficient way to reach males and females ages 18-50.  Generations X and Y are both known to be on-the-go and technologically savvy, so using the Internet was the most reasonable option.  Phone calls and mailings would not have had as strong a response rate.


Two Female Generation Y participants from the listed survey were chosen for an in-depth interview to take a personal look into the participant’s views and reasoning toward food marketing.  Products in question were that of similar food purchases previously obtained and were then challenged on their knowledge of its nutrition and their thoughts on why they purchased it.

Interview participant #1 was a twenty-four year old female of both average weight and height and with a high-school diploma.  Participant # 2 was a twenty-six year old female of fit weight and average height with a college diploma.  Both participants showed great interest in maintaining their health and diet through exercise and nutrition.  Participants noted their food and nutrition knowledge was acquired from Internet articles and magazines, as well as friends and family.  Participant’s watched an average of 10-20 hours of television per week, and surfed the Internet 30-35 hours per week.

Content Analysis

Research was conducted during the shows The Office, Lost, Diners, Drive-in’s and Dives, SNL and How I Met Your Mother as well as late night talk show Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.  These shows were chosen to show a contrast between prime time broadcasts and a broadcast on a food channel. The research provided an actual depiction of what an active Generation Y lifestyle takes time to watch in contrast to a channel one would expect many food marketing advertisements to be broadcasted.  Buzzwords were recorded to show how often (or non-existent) food marketing is advertised during Generation Y’s most popularly watched television programming. 







The most common reported definitions of eating healthy for Generation Y respondents was “eating fresh” although “whole grains”, “low fat” and “low sodium” were shortly following.   The strongest contrast between Generation X and Generation Y was that “low-sodium” was a strong interest to Generation Y, but basically non-existent with those from Generation X. The strongest definition for eating healthy for Generation X was that food consumed consists of a “well balanced” meal.


99.06% of all respondents stated that eating healthy was important to them, but 42% of those respondents claimed to be neutral in looking at nutrition fact labels when shopping and selecting products at the grocery store. 


For the respondents who did find nutritional fact labels important they found “calories”, “fat”, “sugars” and “serving size” to be the most important but the selection of “number of servings” was only selected by 20% of participants. 


The most interesting report was that of food product labeling, nutrition knowledge and respondents perception. The question of which product has a higher or healthier nutritional value and the follow up question of their reasoning confused participants with buzz-words and common knowledge and forced respondents to make a choice on their own without relying on a nutritional fact label.  The most common dispute to why the product “Capri Sun” was healthier was due to the all-natural label and that “Kool-Aid” was known to be unhealthy and full of sugar, when in fact the “Kool-Aid” product was the healthier of the two.  Similar results were shown for contrasting Tortilla and Munchies chips, although Generation X had a stronger notion that “Munchies” were the healthier choice.





            Each participant was questioned as to what a food-package cover was informing them of anything and whether or not it was trusted information.  When presented with the Cereal Bars, although it stated Milk & Cereal Bars and that it was a good source of Calcium, neither participant trusted that its claims were true.  The same disagreement was shown toward the Wonder Whole Grain White bread.  Participant #2 noted that although “the bread might be healthier then most white bread, it was not the best choice” for purchase.  The Light & Fit Yogurt was a found to be a “low calorie” and “healthy” product choice by Participant #1, and a “good snack” by Participant #2.

            When questioned on the nutritional values of products the participants varied their responses and were unaware of what a serving sizes, calories, fat content and sodium intake of each product averaged. 


Content Analysis

An analysis was taken of food-marketing buzzwords during prime time and late night television shows commonly watched by Generation Y.  Results show little to no food advertisements and relied more heavily on fashion, beauty and travel advertisements.  Shown on the Figure 3, the most commonly worded throughout the analyzed shows were concentrations on “Health” or “Healthy” and “Fresh” trailing shortly behind.






Significance of Study

The results of the study provided a true to life look into how confused consumers are about their food purchases and that even though they may be aware of deceiving marketing buzzwords, they chose to ignore them.  The interviews resulted in ignorance to serving size and nutritional values of what they had originally purchased.  Although the nutritional facts were provided, they were perceived to be packaged in such a way that the serving sizes were impossible to split logically, leaving the participant confused and perhaps deceived by the food-marketers. 

The content analysis was conducted to try to create a contrast to buzzwords heard in commercials to then translating into participant purchases.  No data was shown to support this method, as results were null or minimal.  Advertisers during the prime-time and late-night time slots focused more on maintaining fit lifestyles and local grocery rather then pushing the food products themselves.

Limitations and Flaws of Study

The advantage to conducting survey research was that I was able to reach many participants and give them a quick way to take a look into their own eating habits.  If they did not look at nutrition labels, they might now feel that they should start to consider so.  By having the opportunity to give “quiz like” questions, it gave respondents a chance to make their best guess and then respond to why afterward.  The disadvantage is that they can be a turn off.  Out of the 259 friends that have access to Facebook status messages each day, only 24 respondents were collected.  Some information that was provided was not clear, and questions had the chance of becoming misunderstood or skipped over in the process.

In the conducted interviews, the participants resulted a stronger knowledge and understanding of the concepts and questions provided and in turn were more descriptive as to why they agreed or disagreed with the food packages marketing. Although the participants were subject to various advertisements and food marketing ploys, through active Internet and television usage they were well advised as to why they chose a particular item above another.  They also showed greater reasoning for specific products that were purchased above others.  What the interview lacked was a real-time account for how each product could have been consumed by the participant and whether or not the subject would have re-read the product after purchase when preparing it.

The content analysis conducted served a wide range of networks and times to cover commonly watched shows of Generation Y’s interests but lacked enough information to properly track buzzwords and marketing towards Generation Y.  Taking on a website content analysis would have been a stronger fit to this research as it is more commonly seen by Generation Y during work, school and home lifestyles.  


There are 2 key results from the survey.  First, although 99.06% of all participates claim to have eating healthy as an importance to them, many fail to put behaviors and habits into place to monitor their care or awareness to the products they are digesting.  Having only 20% of respondents note attention to the “number of servings” on product labels show a skewed perception of how much they are actually consuming.  Second, participants had difficulty pointing to a “healthier” product in question 8 “What product has a higher or healthier nutritional value?” (Appendix I).  Capri Sun, having a label of “all natural” was assumed to be healthier, although the Kool-Aid Jammers were actually the healthier choice.  Eighty percent of respondents were sold on buzzwords and brand recognition with choices number one and three.  The survey provided the groundwork to this research and showed the strongest data in answering the question as to if Generation Y is affected by food marketing buzzwords and generalities. 

Interview results show a strong understanding of food-marketing buzzwords and techniques on packaging but are not prone to pay particular attention to them when purchasing.  Although some purchasing choices seemed to be healthier then others, not having an understanding of its nutritional values shows an inconsistency as to whether or not the participants understood portion sizes and if this ignorance was cause of their purchase.

The content analysis results showed weak standings of food-marketing advertisements targeted toward the Generation Y and any other generation watching the broadcast.  This lack of content might reflect the ignorance of the Broadcasting Network’s publics, or perhaps their hope is to push food-marketers to leave their products open ended for Generation Y participants to openly misread their products and remain in the dark about what the product offers them and rely on it’s packing alone in the retail stores.

The above survey and interview techniques conducted resulted in similar outcomes in which the participants were aware of the food-marketing buzzwords but were not sure how to use them to their advantage or properly break now the provided nutritional information also provided on the package.  The content analysis provided further proof that food marketers are not targeting Generation Y, and are relying on Generation X participants to lead the way and spread the word onto the later generations or perhaps using online advertising has shown stronger results towards Generation Y, and television advertizing is currently considered obsolete. 

Future Research

Further research of proposed advertising techniques, if any, towards Generation Y would provide the data to better understand what corporations are looking to accomplish, besides deceiving its consumers.  In addition, an interview to weekly Generation Y grocery shoppers as to what specific buzzwords mean to them could provide an additional clue to misconceptions and ignorance amongst today’s youth.  An in-depth content analysis of trendy Generation Y websites might provide a larger range of advertising methods as opposed to the research television broadcasts. 



Andrews, C. J., Burton, S., & Netemeyer, R. G. (2000). Are Some Comparative Nutrition Claims Misleading? The Role of Nutrition Knowledge, Ad Claim Type and Disclosure Conditions.. Journal Of Advertising, 29(3), 29-42.

Ippolito, P. M., & Mathios, A. D. (1991). Health Claims in Food Marketing: Evidence on Knowledge and Behavior in the Cereal Market.. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 10(1), 15-32.

Miller, V. (n.d.). 13 Ridiculous Food Labels that Might Be Fooling You. Natural Bias | Health, Fitness & Perspective by Vin Miller. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from

Osgoodby, Â. R. (n.d.). How to Properly Decipher Deceptive Food Labels. Health Guidance – Free Health Articles. Retrieved February 23, 2010, from

Redmond, W. H. (2009). A Political Economy of Regulatory Failure in US Packaged Food Markets. Journal of Macromarketing, 29(2), 135-144. Retrieved February 21, 2010, from

Richards, J. I., Andrews, C. J., & Maronick, T. J. (1995). Advertising research issues from FTC versus Stouffer Foods Corporation.. Journal of Public Policy & Marketing, 14(2), 301-309.

USDA’s – Dietary Guidelines for Americans. (n.d.). – United States Department of Agriculture – Home . Retrieved February 23, 2010, from

Wansink, B., & Chandon, P. (2006). Can “Low-Fat” Nutrition Labels Lead to Obesity?. Journal Of Marketing Research, 43, 605-617.



  Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
When grocery shopping, I often look for items with low-fat or reduced-fat on the label. 2 2 7 3 1
I often read nutrition fact labels when selecting items at the store. 1 6 6 1 1



    Servings Calories per serving Grams of Fat Sodium
Skippy Reduced Fat Peanut Butter Actual 13 180 12 170
Participant 1 10 250 7 250
Participant 2 20 170 2 200
Uncle Ben’s Whole Grain Instant Brown Rice Actual 8 170 1.5 0
Participant 1 10 200 5 650
Participant 2 28 80 2 600
Carnation Instant Breakfast Essentials Actual 10 220 1 80
Participant 1 10 350 5 180
Participant 2 10 110 4 200



  Fat Healthy Nutritional Fresh Vitamins
Jimmy Fallon 0 4 1 1 0
How I Met Your Mother 0 0 0 4 0
The Office 0 0 3 1 3
SNL 0 4 1 3 0
Lost 2 3 1 2 1
Diners, Drive In’s and Dives 0 0 0 0 0












Appendix I – Survey

This survey assesses human confusion within food marketing by asking questions about your personal views of product labels as well as nutrition. There are no right or wrong answers to questions such as these, so please be as honest and as complete as you can be when filling them out.  The survey is approximately 12 questions long and takes 7 to 10 minutes to complete. When you have finished the questionnaire, your responses will be categorized into social standings that best match your social class.

This questionnaire is being conducted by a student of Westfield State College for Foundations of Communication Research. The information you provide will be anonymous.

1. Age _________

2. Sex    M      F

3. Please select the highest level of schooling completed:

  •   High School
  • 2 year College
  •   4 year College or University
  • Graduate School

4. What does “eating healthy” mean to you? (Check all that apply)

  •  Organic foods
  •   Low calorie foods
  •   Low fat
  •   Low Sugar
  •   Well-balanced
  •   Low carbs
  •   Low sodium
  •   Whole Grains
  •   Natural foods
  •   Eating fresh
  Other (please specify):______________________________________________________

5. Eating healthy is important to me.        Yes    No

6. Please answer the questions below.

  Strongly Agree Agree Neutral Disagree Strongly Disagree
When grocery shopping, I often look for items with low-fat or reduced-fat on the label.          
I often read nutrition fact labels when selecting items at the store.          

7. (If used) Which of the following information, if any, do you use on the Nutrition Facts panel? Check all that apply.

  • Calories
  •   Total Fat
  •   Sugars
  •   Trans Fat
  •   Sodium
  •   Saturated Fat
  •   Serving Size
  •   Calories from fat
  •   Number of servings on package
  •   Carbohydrates
  •   Fiber
  •   Cholesterol
  •   Protein
  •   Vitamins & Minerals
  •   Calcium
  •   Potassium



8. Which product has a higher or healthier nutritional value? (Select one choice from each column)

  • Capri Sun
  •   Kool-Aid Jammers
  •   Cheez-its Crackers
  •   Reduced Fat Triscuits
  •   Frito Lay Munchies Mix
  •   Snyder’s Tortilla Chips

9. From the selections above, why did you choose one over the other?

Capri Sun vs. Kool-Aid  
Cheez-it vs. Reduced Fat Triscuits  
Snyder’s Tortilla Chips vs. Frito-Lay Munchies  





Appendix II – Interview


1.)    Age ____

2.)    Height_____

3.)    Weight______

4.)    Education Level

  1. High School
  2. College
  3. Graduate

5.)    How often do you watch television each week?

  1. 0 – 5 hours
  2. 5 – 10 hours
  3. 10 – 20 hours
  4. 20+ hours

6.)    Adding to 100% – how much do you spend in the following grocery departments

  1. Dairy ____
  2. Produce____
  3. Deli_____
  4. Seafood____
  5. Frozen Goods____
  6. Other____

7.)    Do you read nutritional labels

  1. Yes
  2. No

8.)    What does this food packaging tell you?  Do you trust it?

  1. Rice Krispies Cereal Bars
  2. Light & Fit Yogurt
  3. Natures Valley Granola Bar

9.)    Estimate the nutritional value of the following items:

  1. Carnation Breakfast Essentials

                                                  i.      Servings ____

                                                ii.      Calories per serving____

                                              iii.      Grams of fat_____

                                              iv.      Sodium _____

  1. Whole Grain Instant Brown Rice

                                                  i.      Servings ____

                                                ii.      Calories per serving____

                                              iii.      Grams of fat_____

                                              iv.      Sodium _____

  1. Skippy’s Reduced Fat Peanut Butter

                                                  i.      Servings ____

                                                ii.      Calories per serving____

                                              iii.      Grams of fat_____

                                              iv.      Sodium _____


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