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Junk Food, Spending Bans May Not Help Those with Impulse Problems

Junk Food, Spending Bans May Not Help Those with Impulse Problems

Chris Bartone

fast food graphic

Scholarly Insights: AMA’s digest of the latest findings from marketing’s top researchers​.

When former mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg pushed for a citywide ban on large soda drinks, he found himself at the familiar and controversial intersection between government regulation and personal accountability. But what may surprise advocates of the policy is that, had the ban been ratified, there is evidence to suggest consumer behavior may not have changed at all.

New research in the AMA’s Journal of Public Policy & Marketing​ says laws affecting food and finance don’t have much impact on those who like their Big Gulps and “shop ’til you drop” weekends. So when it comes to the giant soda ban, health nuts would still avoid large sodas, but sweet-toothed New Yorkers would still pay up to get their sugary fix.

Therein lies the challenge policy makers face when attempting to influence consumer behavior: Some of us simply do not possess the self-control to resist that soda even if we have to pay more for it. The researchers suggest that “when formulating policy to address important social issues such as obesity and consumer debt, understanding the role of consumer self-control is crucial.” 


It is no secret that a consumer with a disposition that tends toward overindulgence is more susceptible to financial and health-related problems. And that certainly does not mean public policy initiatives like the large soda ban are doomed to failure. But when policy makers are determining how such initiatives might effect change in consumer behavior, they should consider their potential effectiveness in context. 

The authors, Kelly L. Haws, Scott W. Davis and Utpal M. Dholakia, write that “context, personal preferences, and other factors may lead to differences in one’s self-control” and that this applies to a wide spectrum of behavior. For example, a consumer who tends to over-spend might not necessarily be compelled to over-eat. What does this mean for marketers and policy makers? Just because a consumer has a high level of self-control in one area of his life doesn’t mean that he exerts the same level of self-control in another. 

“The effectiveness of public policy interventions,” according to the research, “are dependent on individual differences in consumers’ self-control” in various areas of their lives. Ultimately, the research suggests that policy makers and marketers should seek “a better understanding of these aspects of self-control.” Not doing so could mean that a policy intended to influence consumer behavior in a positive way could run the risk of producing the opposite outcome.

Related Video:

Author, Kelly Haws, discusses self control and healthy eating.

Related Research:

Kelly L. Haws, Scott W. Davis, Utpal M. Dholakia Control Over What? Individual Differences in General versus Eating and Spending Self-ControlJournal of Public Policy & Marketing​ In-Press.