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Guest Thinkers

Key Word Organic: Analyzing How TV Commercials Sell Food Products

Since the birth of mass market advertising, one of the longest standing strategies has been to call a product “all natural.” Today, this key word has been joined by others such as “fresh,” “local,” “GMO-free,” and even “organic.”  Each of these terms have important and real meanings, but as experts such as Marion Nestle have argued, these terms have also been applied by mass advertisers to distract consumers from important dimensions of their food choices. In a guest post today, Lauren Krizel examines the key word strategies employed in TV commercials about food.  Krizel is a student in this semester’s course at American University on “Science, the Environment and the Media” — MCN.

Even with the rise of internet and social media use, television still constitutes a large part of our daily media use in the U.S. A child sees an average of 20,000 30-second commercials in a year, and by the age of 65, a person sees about 2 million commercials. A significant portion of these commercials advertise food products. The way advertisers portray food, and what language they use has the potential to seriously influence people’s food choices.

In a content analysis of food commercials, I coded for words such as organic, natural, healthy, and nutritional. I also coded for imagery such as happy families and pastoral images of farms. Lastly, I coded for gender and race of the actors.

None of the commercials said their product was organic. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, organic food is produced without using most conventional pesticides or fertilizers made with synthetic ingredients or sewage sludge. It also must be free from bioengineering, and organic meat, poultry, eggs and dairy products must be free of antibiotics and growth hormones. If a product is actually certified organic by the USDA, it will have this label.

I coded 15 commercials while watching programs such as House, The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution. I chose the first 15 commercials I saw while watching these shows.

Unlike ‘organic,’ the term natural is not regulated by the USDA for food products.  According to my analysis, almost half of commercials used the word natural to describe their products. Some of these products included Sierra Mist soda, Lays potato chips, and Wendy’s fast food. One-third of ads said their products were healthy or nutritional, one of which was Triscuit crackers.

None of the ads featured only women. Most commercials had a mix of genders and one was all male. Seeing as most food shopping choices are made by women, this result surprised me.

Sixty percent of commercials coded featured all white actors and none featured all non-white actors. About 27 percent featured multiple races.As I continue the content analysis, the trends may become clearer, but for now, this is all food for thought.

See below for preliminary results of my analysis.

Images/words coded for

% commercials using this image/word











Pesticide or herbicide-free






No preservatives


Happy children


Happy adults


Happy animals


Pastoral imagery


Farmers market


All white


All non-white


Mix of races


All female


All male


Mix of genders


Number of commercials coded


— Guest post by Lauren Krizel, an undergraduate at American University, Washington, D.C.  This post is part of the course “Science, Environment, and the Media” taught by Professor Matthew Nisbet in the School of Communication at American.  See also other posts on the food policy by Krizel and members of her project team.


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