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A Comparison of Advertising, Social, and Cognitive Predictors of Overeating Behavior

Brian R. Kinard, University of North Carolina-Wilmington, USA


Cynthia Webster, Mississippi State University, USA
Allyn White, Mississippi State University, USA

ABSTRACT mixed, with some results suggesting no relationship (i.e., DuRant,


The Journal of the American Medical Association and the Baranowski, Johnson and Thompson 1994; Wolf, Gortmaker,
National Center for Health Statistics report that 30 percent of adults Cheung, Gray, Herzog and Colditz 1993), while others indicate a
and 15 percent of adolescents in the United States are obese (Ogden relatively strong effect (i.e., Dietz and Gortmaker 1985). Although
et al. 2002). Such statistics suggest that the prevalence of obesity in there is limited empirical evidence directly linking advertising and
America has reached epidemic proportions, threatening to overtake adolescent obesity (Lvovich 2003), these findings warrant further
smoking as the leading preventable cause of disease and death examination of advertising’s influence on overeating behaviors.
(Seiders and Petty 2004). Although limiting unhealthy advertisements (Ellison and
Drawing from Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive framework Vranica 2005), food manufacturers still allocate nearly 75 percent
to understand the etiology of overeating behavior, the current of media budgets to televised advertisements (Byrd-Bredbenner
research study simultaneously examines individual and combined and Grasso 2001). Children view nearly 3 hours of commercials
effects of advertising, social, and cognitive predictors on overeat- weekly, the majority of which are for unhealthy foods (Armstrong
ing behavior in adolescent and adult populations. This research is and Brucks 1988; Gamble and Cotugna 1999; Dietz and Gortmaker
the first to examine social cognitive influences in both an adolescent 1985; Tucker 1986). Further, children’s exposure to food advertise-
and adult population, which allowed an assessment of the robust- ments increases their desire for those foods (Goldberg and Gorn
ness of each variable across two different populations, and conse- 1974). Thus,
quently enhances the external validity of the results.
Overall, the results of the analysis suggest that (1) although H1: After controlling for other sources of influence, exposure
advertising media alone may have a significant effect on unhealthy to unhealthy food-related advertisements is a significant
overeating behavior, parental influence, peer influence, and self- predictor of unhealthy overeating behavior.
efficacy beliefs largely neutralize such influence, (2) peer and
parental influences strongly predict adolescent unhealthy overeat- Parental Influence on Overeating Behavior
ing behavior, but parental influence wanes as individuals reach Social cognitive theory (Bandura 1986) suggests that direct
adulthood, and (3) self-efficacy is the most significant predictor of exposure to parental figures overeating reduces an individual’s
adolescent and adult unhealthy overeating behavior. inhibition to engage in such behavior. Further, research indicates
children’s food preferences are shaped by observing food selection
INTRODUCTION patterns and eating behaviors of their parents (Birch and Fisher
Extensive research efforts have sought to explore the biologi- 1998; Bolton 1983). In addition, parental control over adolescent
cal, psychological, and social factors and mechanisms that influ- exposure to advertised media may preempt children’s susceptibil-
ence voluntary risk behavior among adolescents (i.e., Grube and ity to advertising. Thus,
Wallack 1994; Hitchings and Moynihan 1998; Pechmann and
Knight 2002; Seiders and Petty 2004). Among the factors docu- H2: After controlling for other sources of influence, parental
mented by behavioral theorists to influence adolescent risk behav- influence is a significant predictor of unhealthy overeat-
ior are attitudes, intentions, emotions, social norms, motivations, ing behavior.
and the environment. However, multiple spheres of influence and
developmental changes make childhood and adolescence challeng- Peer Influence on Overeating Behavior
ing targets for research aimed at understanding how risk behaviors During adolescence, individuals tend to identify more with
form. Specifically, determining the extent to which each factor peers than with family members (Campbell 1969; Moore and
contributes to the development of risk behavior among adolescents Moschis 1978; Moschis and Churchill 1979; Ward 1974). Adoles-
is a confounding issue. cents that frequently interact with peers tend to prefer their friends’
Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive theory provides some guid- products (Caron and Ward 1975), discuss peer consumption behav-
ance to understand the myriad of factors that influence risk behavior ior with parents (Churchill and Moschis 1979; Moore and Moschis
(Malone 2002). The theory purports reciprocal, bidirectional inter- 1978), influence product and brand preferences of family members
relationships of a person’s behavior, environmental factors (family, (Moschis, Moore and Smith 1984; Saunders, Salmi and Tozier
friends, and media) and cognitive processes (thoughts, language, 1973) and are more actively involved in the family purchasing
memory, and self-efficacy) as the explanation to human behavior process (Moschis, Moore and Stephens 1977).
(Jacob 2002). Further, social cognitive theory does not place equal Therefore,
emphasis on these relationships, thus allowing for the examination
of the unique and additive effects of the variables. At the time of this H3: After controlling for other sources of influence, peer
research prior studies using social cognitive theory to examine influence is a significant predictor of unhealthy overeat-
adolescent risk behaviors tend to view social cognitive associations ing behavior.
as independent, rather than interwoven sources of influence.
Self-Efficacy Influence
Advertising’s Influence on Overeating Behavior Theories of social influence have proven valuable in research-
A variety of studies have examined the relationship between ing voluntary risk behavior. The social influences discussed thus far
television viewing and obesity in children (e.g., Crawford, Jeffery are purported to stimulate the consumer’s desire to partake in a
and French 1999, Moschis and Moore 1982). However, findings are certain behavior. However, theories relying solely on social influ-
563 Advances in Consumer Research
Volume 35, © 2008
564 / A Comparison of Advertising, Social, and Cognitive Predictors of Overeating Behavior
ences seemingly assume that the individual has control over his or behavior by asking, “How often do your parents (peers) overeat?”
her behavior. Bandura (1986) realized the potential effects of real (1=Never; 5=Almost every day). We assessed attitude and subjec-
or perceived self-control on an individual’s behavior, and revised tive norms related to the behavior by asking the following ques-
his original frameworks to account for such influence, termed self- tions: “What is your parents (peers) general attitude toward overeat-
efficacy beliefs. Self-efficacy is a cognitive variable referring to ing?” (1=Unfavorable; 5=Favorable) and “How often do you feel
individuals’ perceived ability to exert control over events in their you need to comply with your parents (peers) attitude toward
lives (Bandura 1986). Indeed, self-efficacy beliefs may preempt overeating?” (1=Never; 5=All the time).
external influences on overeating (Godin and Kok 1996). From Self-efficacy (α=.94), was measured as a general construct
Bandura’s (1986) social cognitive perspective, individuals with that reflects an individual’s ability to cope with a broad range of
low self-efficacy beliefs are unlikely to resist engaging in behavior stressful or challenging demands. Four items were used to measure
detrimental to their health, whereas the opposite is true for high self- general self-efficacy. A typical question from the scale is “I never
efficacy individuals. Therefore, individuals who believe that they give up on things before completing them” (1=Strongly disagree;
are unable to stop eating might overeat, social influences support- 5=Strongly agree).
ing or dissuading overeating behavior notwithstanding. Self-effi- Dependent Measures. Unhealthy overeating behavior was
cacy has been reported to predict consumer overeating (Clark, assessed by correlating the results of two measures. First, respon-
Abrams, Niaura, Eaton, and Rossi 1991; Richman, Loughnan, dents were asked “What percent of your diet consists of, what is
Droulers, Steinbeck, and Caterson 2001). Furthermore, research generally considered, unhealthy food (e.g., high sugar, high satu-
reports weight self-efficacy is inversely related to actual weight in rated fat, ‘empty calories’, etc.)?” Then respondents were asked to
both male and female samples (Linde, Jeffery, Levy, Sherwood, report their age, weight, and height in order to determine the number
Utter, Pronk, and Boyle 2004). Thus, of pounds they were over the “high” end for their acceptable weight
range. Acceptable adolescent weight ranges for comparison are
H4: After controlling for other sources of influence, general widely published (e.g., Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
self-efficacy is a significant predictor of unhealthy over- 2000). A high correlation between the two measures indicates there
eating behavior. is strong positive relationship between one’s unhealthy food con-
sumption and the extent to which s/he is overweight, indicating a
METHODOLOGY propensity to overeat unhealthy foods. The correlation coefficient
The current research consists of two studies. Study 1 examines between these two measures across both studies was .983.
the relative influence of four social cognitive variables-advertising, Demographic Measures. The current study controlled for
parental influence, peer influence, and self-efficacy–on adolescent possible extraneous influences of socioeconomic status, gender,
overeating behaviors. In order to enhance the external validity of and ethnicity (Moore and Stephens 1975). Respondent gender and
the results, Study 2 examines the influence of these variables on ethnicity were measured using traditional nominal scales. As is
adult overeating behaviors. Survey content, format, and adminis- common in youth research, adolescent SES was determined by
tration were identical for both studies. parental occupation and educational attainment.
Procedure. Survey administration took place during evening
hours inside/outside of restaurants across three cities–Chicago, Analysis
Illinois; San Antonio, Texas; and Washington, D.C. Intercepted Hierarchical regression analysis allows partitioning of the
respondents were screened for engagement in overeating behavior total variance explained by a set of predictor variables into unique
and the extent to which they felt competent in recalling and proportions explained by discrete subsets so that a predictor subset’s
reporting the manner in which certain antecedents had impacted “contribution to unique variance in a criterion beyond another
their overeating. Once an individual was screened, the purpose and predictor’s contribution may be explained” (Organ and Konovsky
nature of the study was explained and $2 was offered in exchange 1989, 161). We conducted hierarchical regression analysis in five
for participation. major steps. First, demographic control variables were regressed on
In an effort to enhance the accuracy of self-report measures each of the three risk behaviors. Second, each predictor was
used to collect adolescent overeating behavior, counter-biasing regressed separately on the two risk behaviors, with the inclusion of
information was provided during survey administration. For in- significant demographic control variables from step 1. Third, each
stance, respondents were told “It’s very common to overeat”. of the four predictor variables was added separately to the equations
Counter-biasing methods have been proven to lower social desir- of the second step, and the change in R2 was investigated for
ability bias in health research (Raghubir and Menon 1996; Sudman significance (p ≤ .05). Fourth, each of the four predictor variables
and Bradburn 1974). Additionally, research guidelines suggest a was added separately to subsets of every possible pair of predictor
short time frame be utilized when assessing self-report responses variables from the third step, and the change in R2 was investigated
(Sudman and Schwarz 1989). Thus studies 1 and 2 used a reference for significance. Finally, each of the four predictor variables was
time period of one month. Test-retest correlations (Study 1-.92, added separately to subsets of every possible three-way combina-
n=26, 17-day interval; Study 2-.94, n=30, 16-day interval) suggest tion of predictor variables from the fourth step, and the change in R2
consistency in reported behavior from both studies. was again investigated for significance. An alpha value of .05 was
Independent Measures. Advertising influence (α=.87) was used for determination of statistical significance for all results.
assessed using recalled exposure to advertised messages, as well as
cognitive and affective processes elicited by their presence that may STUDY 1
encourage individuals to engage in risk behavior. The current study In this study, we investigate the relative predictive effects of
adapted measures constructed by Schooler, Feighery and Flora advertising media, social influence and self-efficacy on adolescent
(1996) to estimate advertising exposure through both broadcast and overeating. Specifically, this study consists of adolescents (age 13-
print media.. 19) exhibiting a propensity to overeat unhealthy food.
In line with similar studies examining parental/peer influence Sample. A total of 89 qualified adolescents agreed to complete
(αPar=.80; αPeer=.85), we assessed perceived parental and peer the survey. The respondent mean age was 16.3 years, and, on
Advances in Consumer Research (Volume 35) / 565
average, each respondent reported being nearly 40 pounds over- variables. Based on the change in R2 in step 3, advertising, parental
weight. influence, peer influence, and self-efficacy are significant predic-
Results. Table 1 shows the results of the hierarchical regres- tors of adult overeating behavior (except for the relationships of
sion analysis and the standardized beta estimates for the full parental and peer influence beyond self-efficacy).
regression model. Significant relationships were identified be- When controlling for all other subsets of social cognitive
tween demographic control variables and overeating behavior. predictor variables and demographic variables in step 5, the result-
Specifically, socioeconomic status was negatively associated with ing change in R2 values and standardized beta coefficients reveal
overeating, and adolescent females were associated more with that advertising and parental influence are non-significant predic-
overeating than adolescent males. Additionally those that marked tors of adult unhealthy overeating behavior, while peer influence
“Other” for their ethnicity, as compared to Caucasians, African- and self-efficacy appear to be significant predictors of adult un-
Americans, and Hispanics, were associated with lower levels of healthy overeating behavior. Overall, self-efficacy is again found to
adolescent overeating behaviors. be the most significant determinant of unhealthy overeating behav-
The change in R2 associated with step 2 of the hierarchical ior. Based upon these findings, only H3 and H4 are supported.
regression analysis shows that all four independent variables sig-
nificantly predict unhealthy overeating behavior among adoles- DISCUSSION
cents after controlling for demographic variables. The third step of This research study explored the relative explanatory power of
the analysis shows each predictor variable’s ability to explain some advertising, social, and cognitive predictors of overeating across
unique variance in adolescent unhealthy overeating behavior when both an adolescent and adult sample. The empirical evidence
controlling for only one other social cognitive predictor and the provided in this study makes a significant contribution toward
demographic variables. Based on the change in R2 in step 3, understanding the etiology of unhealthy overeating behaviors.
advertising is non-significant for overeating, while parental influ- While critics blame advertising for the prevalence of obesity in the
ence, peer influence, and self-efficacy are significant (except for the adolescent population, the results of this research suggest that
relationship of peer influence beyond self-efficacy). advertising accounts for a relatively small, insignificant percent
When controlling for all other subsets of social cognitive (e.g., 1 percent for adolescents and 2 percent for adults) of unique
predictor variables and demographic variables in step 5, the result- variance in unhealthy overeating behavior when controlling for
ing change in R2 values and standardized beta coefficient reveal other social cognitive predictor variables. In fact, for both adoles-
advertising to be a non-significant predictor of unhealthy overeat- cents and adults, self-efficacy is the strongest predictor of un-
ing behavior among adolescents, while parental influence, peer healthy overeating behavior.
influence, and self-efficacy are significant. Overall, self-efficacy is Overall, the results of the analysis suggest that (1) although
found to be the most significant determinant of adolescent overeat- advertising media alone may have a significant effect on unhealthy
ing. Further removing possible effects of advertising and self- overeating behavior, parental influence, peer influence, and self-
efficacy, parental and peer influences are second and third in efficacy beliefs largely neutralize such influence, (2) peer and
significance, respectively. Based upon these findings, H2, H3, and parental influences strongly predict adolescent unhealthy overeat-
H4 are supported. No support is found for H1. ing behavior, but parental influence wanes as individuals reach
adulthood, and (3) self-efficacy is the most significant predictor of
STUDY 2 adolescent and adult unhealthy overeating behavior.
In Study 1, we examined the ability of each social cognitive
variable to explain unique variance in risk behavior among adoles- Limitations and Future Research
cents. Although the results from Study 1 are promising to better Self-report measures will inevitably lead to questions regard-
understanding the etiology of overeating behavior, adolescent ing response accuracy. Previous studies have found that the re-
samples limit the generalizability of the results. Therefore, Study 2 sponse estimates are associated more with an adolescent’s own
consists of an adult sample exhibiting overeating behavior. Differ- behavior, and thus may lead to overestimation of influence (Sussman,
ences in age between the two sample types strengthen the ability to Dent, Mestel-Rauch, and Johnson 1988). Future research studies
draw conclusions detailed in the first study. examining modeling effects should directly assess peer and paren-
Sample. A total of 83 qualified adults agreed to complete the tal unhealthy overeating behavior. Additionally, a one-month ref-
survey, comprised of 49 percent male and 51 percent female erence period follows established research guidelines for self-
respondents. The average age of the respondent was 52 years, and, report measures. However, relying on the participant’s memory of
on average, each respondent reported being nearly 63 pounds prior overeating behaviors limits the ability to draw conclusions
overweight. with certainty. Studying actual overeating behavior in an experi-
Results. Table 2 presents the results of the hierarchical regres- mental setting would strengthen the validity of the current findings.
sion analysis of Study 2. Similar to the significant relationships Second, this study casts social cognitive variables as predic-
identified between demographic controls and overeating in Study 1, tors of risk behavior, but social cognitive theory posits reciprocal
socioeconomic status was negatively associated with unhealthy relationships. While empirical evidence supports the causal nature
overeating, adults that marked “Other” were less likely to overeat of these predictors, future research might employ a longitudinal
unhealthy foods, and adult females were more likely than adult assessment and analytic methods associated with casual modeling.
males to overeat unhealthy foods. Finally, the social cognitive variables assessed in this research
Similar to Study 1, the change in R2 associated with step 2 of study do not represent an exhaustive list of factors influencing
the hierarchical regression analysis suggests that all four indepen- overeating behavior. Examining additional variables such as out-
dent variables significantly predict adult unhealthy overeating after come expectancies, perceptions of personal norms for appropriate
controlling for demographic variables. Again, the third step of the social behavior, personal responsibility regarding one’s own be-
analysis shows each predictor variable’s ability to explain some havior may provide additional insight into the cognitive processes
unique variance in adult overeating behavior when controlling for underlying risk behavior.
only one other social cognitive predictor and the demographic
566 / A Comparison of Advertising, Social, and Cognitive Predictors of Overeating Behavior

Alternative Hierarchical Regression of Adolescents’ Overeating on Advertising, Parental Influence, Peer Influence, and
Self-Efficacy

Regression Steps ∆R2

Overeating
Step 1
Demographic control variables only .07a

Step 2
Advertising .07a
Parental Influence .25b
Peer Influence .13b
Self-Efficacy .38b

Step 3
Advertising beyond parental influence .01
Advertising beyond peer influence .02
Advertising beyond self-efficacy .00

Parental influence beyond advertising .23b


Parental influence beyond peer influence .20b
Parental influence beyond self-efficacy .12b

Peer influence beyond advertising .12b


Peer influence beyond peer influence .04a
Peer influence beyond self-efficacy .02

Self-efficacy beyond advertising .35b


Self-efficacy beyond parental influence .27b
Self-efficacy beyond peer influence .22b

Step 4
Advertising beyond par infl and peer infl .00
Advertising beyond par infl and peer infl .00
Advertising beyond peer infl and s-eff .00
Parental influence beyond adv and peer infl .18b
Parental influence beyond adv and s-eff .15b
Parental influence beyond peer infl and s-eff .13b

Peer influence beyond adv and par infl .07a


Peer influence beyond adv and s-eff .00
Peer influence beyond par infl and s-eff .01

Self-efficacy beyond adv and par infl .25b


Self-efficacy beyond adv and peer infl .20b
Self-efficacy beyond par infl and peer infl .19b

Step 5
Advertising beyond par infl, peer infl, and s-eff .00
Parental influence beyond adv, peer infl, and s-eff .18b
Peer influence beyond adv, par infl, and s-eff .07a
Self-efficacy beyond adv, par infl, and peer infl .25b

Advertising β .008
Parental Influence β .218b
Peer Influence β .177b
Self-Efficacy β .264b

a p ≤ .05, b p ≤ .01
Advances in Consumer Research (Volume 35) / 567

TABLE 2
Alternative Hierarchical Regression of Adults’ Overeating on Advertising, Parental Influence, Peer Influence, and Self-
Efficacy

Regression Steps ∆ R2

Overeating
Step 1
Demographic control variables only .07a

Step 2
Advertising .12b
Parental Influence .12b
Peer Influence .18b
Self-Efficacy .31b

Step 3
Advertising beyond parental influence .07a
Advertising beyond peer influence .05a
Advertising beyond self-efficacy .01b

Parental influence beyond advertising .08b


Parental influence beyond peer influence .05a
Parental influence beyond self-efficacy .01

Peer influence beyond advertising .16b


Peer influence beyond peer influence .13b
Peer influence beyond self-efficacy .02

Self-efficacy beyond advertising .27b


Self-efficacy beyond parental influence .25b
Self-efficacy beyond peer influence .26b

Step 4
Advertising beyond par infl and peer infl .03a
Advertising beyond par infl and peer infl .02
Advertising beyond peer infl and s-eff .01

Parental influence beyond adv and peer infl .04a


Parental influence beyond adv and s-eff .01
Parental influence beyond peer infl and s-eff .00

Peer influence beyond adv and par infl .12b


Peer influence beyond adv and s-eff .09b
Peer influence beyond par infl and s-eff .06a

Self-efficacy beyond adv and par infl .23b


Self-efficacy beyond adv and peer infl .24b
Self-efficacy beyond par infl and peer infl .22b

Step 5

Advertising beyond par infl, peer infl, and s-eff .02


Parental influence beyond adv, peer infl, and s-eff .00
Peer influence beyond adv, par infl, and s-eff .09b
Self-efficacy beyond adv, par infl, and peer infl .24b

Advertising β .082
Parental Influence β .019
Peer Influence β .238b
Self-Efficacy β .289b

a p ≤ .05, b p ≤ .01
568 / A Comparison of Advertising, Social, and Cognitive Predictors of Overeating Behavior

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