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The Science of Food Porn

The Science of Food Porn

Posting in Food

If Mason's parody video of food commercials doesn't make you hungry, you might not be a member of the human race.

Mason's video for their new track Le Big Bob trades in the usual tropes of dance music--sex--for a totally different kind of over-the-top visual stimulation: Food porn.

But Le Big Bob isn't just a wry take on our culture's obsession with stimulating desire, it's also an object lesson in the incredible power of what scientists call supernormal stimuli.

Pioneered in field studies by the ethologists Tinbergen and Lorenz, supernormal stimuli is any phenomenon in which the features of an object -- be it a parent, mate, or food -- are exaggerated to make an animal respond more strongly to them. In her 2010 book Supernormal stimuli: how primal urges overran their evolutionary purpose, Deirdre Barrett explored the ways in which movie makers, advertisers and fast food companies exaggerate the parts of things we already like in order to hijack our emotions and cravings.

Baby chicks presented with parents with exaggerated versions of the features they're homing in on -- the color of a parent's beak, say -- will respond more strongly to an exaggerated, but artificial, version of their parent than to the real thing. In the same way, humans home in on versions of reality in which the most enticing features are enhanced. In food, that's texture, color, and anything else we associate with nutrient density, mouth feel and general deliciousness.

The result, contends Barrett, is that despite the fact that fast food is universally acknowledged to be unhealthy, it remains a booming business, precisely because of the way it manipulates, in ads and in person, our desire for the nutrients we need to live.

Mason's video hammers home the point that this is what Food Porn is all about in a terrifically visceral way -- watch it all the way through, and I guarantee that by the end you'll feel compelled to get up for a snack. (I had to make lunch before I could even commence writing this post!)

As Jayson Lusk et al. note in the The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Food Consumption and Policy, the average consumer makes between 200 and 300 food choices per day. Because of limited time and cognitive resources -- what economists call bounded rationality -- this means we are often operating on instinct, choosing what to eat and when to eat it more or less subconsciously. That's one of the reason that food advertising is so ubiquitous, and, through the magic of cinematography, more compelling than ever.

The results, outlined in Barrett's follow-up book, Waistland: The Revolutionary Science Behind Our Weight and Fitness Crisis are all too familiar. Long commutes, inactivity, and a general lack of time mean we're relying on convenience foods to get us through the day, and that means heart disease, diabetes and obesity. And one part of that equation is precisely the kind advertised to us to the point that when their conventions are mashed into a single video, they seem absurd.

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Christopher Mims

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Christopher Mims has written for Scientific American, WIRED, Popular Science, Fast Company, Good, Discover, Slate, Technology Review, Nature and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions at Duke University. Formerly, he was an editor at Scientific American, Grist and Seed. He is based in Washington, D.C. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure