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Is Xbox One's fast food fetish unethical?

Wednesday, November 5th 2014 by Dan Howdle
Microsoft will soon add voice-activated pizza delivery to its Xbox One console. Just say ‘Domino's, feed me’, at your Kinect sensor and pizza will arrive at your door within 30 minutes. In doing so, argues Dan Howdle, Microsoft has broken down the last barriers between fast food and the world’s most sedentary subculture.

Microsoft’s endorsement of fast food brands has a history. The purpose of three ‘advergames’ launched on the Xbox 360 platform in 2006 was to gamify promotion of the Burger King brand – ditto for a series of Doritos titles that appeared in the latter half of the Xbox 360 lifecycle. In 2009 Microsoft's enlistment of Burger King to promote Windows 7 with a 2,500-calorie, seven-patty Whopper caused one tech writer to declare it one of Microsoft's “worst promotional ideas ever”.

Is it as innocent as that? A bad promotional idea? Or should we be concerned that in a national obesity epidemic Microsoft is allying its gaming platforms to junk food brands?

The Food and Drink Federation (FDF) is the UK body responsible for defining the guideline daily amounts (GDAs) of various nutrients found in every-day food items. It works with the government for the development of ‘’better for you' products; or the introduction of clearer on-pack nutritional information’.

According to the FDF, ‘Rising levels of obesity are a public health concern due to the association between obesity . . . and mortality. An obese 40 year old will, on average, have a reduced life expectancy of six to seven years. There is also an increased risk of many chronic diseases including type-two diabetes, coronary heart disease, high blood pressure (which is linked to an increased risk of stroke), and cancer. This results in reduced quality of life for the individual and an increased burden on the economy, both in terms of healthcare provision and loss of working days.’

By 2050, says the FDF, 60% of men, 50% of women and 25% of children in the UK will be obese, and the associated health problems will cost the taxpayer an additional £45.5 billion a year, with high salt intake (closely associated with high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease) increasing the risk of heart attack.

To the average female adult, a large Domino's Pepperoni Passion pizza on a standard crust represents 200% of her recommended daily allowance of salt (12.1g), 137% of the fat (96g) and around 110% of the total calories (2197 kcal). And before you reason that most of us aren’t going to eat the whole thing, the science doesn’t agree.

Rolls et al’s paper ‘The influence of food portion size and energy density on energy intake: implications for weight management’, published in The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition states: ‘The available data indicate that the effects of portion size and energy density combine so that large portions of energy-dense foods are particularly likely to stimulate overconsumption’.

Further, Dr Lenny Vartanian, senior lecturer at the UNSW School of Psychology authored a paper last year with the snappy title ‘The Effect of Portion Size on Food Intake is Robust to Brief Education and Mindfulness Exercises’. So, rather than merely demonstrate that more on the plate represents de facto calorific excess, his paper demonstrates that the portion size effect could be measured regardless of whether participants in the study were educated on the effect, or they employed mindfulness to consciously counter it.

The paper was published in the Journal of Health Psychology in 2005.

Doritos Crash Course and its sequel were free to Xbox Live subscribers in the latter half of the Xbox 360 lifecycle

‘Studies have consistently shown,’ wrote Dr Vartanian, ‘that increases in portion sizes for a wide range of foods and beverages result in increased energy intake. And the impact is not affected by factors such as hunger or the taste of the food’.

Think about that for a moment. Ordering too much food results in overeating. It’s as bad for you as buying the wrong type of food (energy, salt and fat dense), and combining the two is the worst of both worlds.

Pizza, which cannot be ordered by the slice, represents a partnership between an unhealthy nutrient overload and default, oversize quantities. Indeed, Domino's itself states on its website: ‘We market our product as a treat and expect our consumers to share a pizza, consuming on average three slices per sitting.’

Domino's doesn’t want us eating its food in large quantities, but since pizzas arrive in eight or ten-slice groupings, is that a reasonable expectation?

A principle characteristic of successful design is that it understands how humans behave and caters to that behaviour. A principle characteristic of unsuccessful design is that it serves a designer-gratifying agenda that the end user neither wants nor understands. That we will capitulate to expectations in opposition to natural human tendency is either naive hope or a deliberate attempt to confound us with feigned good intention. So what is a ten-slice pizza? Oddly, by that rationale it's good design – because it understands and caters for our tendency to overeat. If the proposed inent is consumption in moderation, however, it is the worst design imaginable.

“Brand impressions don’t work on me. I buy what I want to buy because I want to buy it, not because of the machinations of some corporate shill.”

If you’ve ever said this, you should know that advertisers are laughing at you. These are the lyrics to their anthem, the spine to the narrative in which their creations are dubbed harmless and provided back-stage passes to your subconscious. It's a failure in understanding that begins with the assumption that brand impressions are something that should work immediately, that if we see an ad on television and don’t sprint to the nearest shop to buy whatever it’s peddling then it hasn’t worked. That’s not how brand impressions work.

Nigel Hollis, global analyst at Millward Brown (a company I once worked for, incidentally) and author of The Global Brand, says: “Successful advertising rarely succeeds through argument or calls to action. Instead, it creates positive memories and feelings that influence our behaviour over time to encourage us to buy something at a later date. No one likes to think that they are easily influenced. In fact, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that we respond negatively to naked attempts at persuasion.

“Instead, the best advertisements are ingenious at leaving impressions. Consider my dinner party friend, who, after claiming to be immune to marketing, proceeded to describe an erectile dysfunction ad with impressive detail. She then intoned cigarette ad slogans (“Cal-l-l for-r-r Phil-lip Mor-ray-ssss”) from the early 1950s when Philip Morris sponsored the ‘I Love Lucy’ show.

At the root of this effect is the familiarity heuristic; a psychological shorthand or rule of thumb discovered and named by two psychology heroes of mine: Nobel winners Daniel Kahneman and (the late) Amos Tversky. It merely states, in Kahneman’s characteristically succinct words, that: 'Familiarity breeds liking'. Our brains reward us chemically for identifying patterns and objects we recognise, which is why a song can ‘grow’ on us, and why we delight in nudging a friend mid-movie to whisper ‘Hey, that’s that actor from…’

The familiarity heuristic is regularly referenced in connection with consumer behaviour: The more familiar we are with a brand, the more we like it, and that liking rubs off on the products and other brands it is associated with.

In 2006, Microsoft published 'advergames' such as the very odd Sneak King to promote products from Burger King

It didn’t take TV advertising for me to love the Xbox brand. Great experiences with friends constituted an associative reinforcement of brand loyalty; a powerful, collective influence formed of familiarity, liking and social proof. It’s not a conscious process. We can't control it, and further will argue that we were never subject to its effects in the first place thanks to yet another bias: post-purchase rationalisation.

The associative effect of fast-food brands and household IP is provoking action groups to banish advertising by fast food chains such as Domino's and Kentucky Fried Chicken to post-primetime. The campaign group Action on Junk Food Marketing, whose members include the Children’s Food Campaign and the British Heart Foundation, are striving to prise apart junk food advertising and children’s programming, because they understand that the proximity of fast food brands to much-loved children’s IP has an associative promotional effect.

Gamers in the United States play on average for 22 hours per week. On average. Some play less, many play more. That’s over three hours per day sat on one’s behind. A 2012 paper by Lee et al titled ‘Effect of physical inactivity on major non-communicable diseases worldwide: an analysis of burden of disease and life expectancy’, published in The Lancet, hypothesised that: 'Physical inactivity increases the risk of many adverse health conditions, including major non-communicable diseases such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancers, and shortens life expectancy. Because much of the world's population is inactive, this link presents a major public health issue.'

If you’re reading that list and seeing some familiar suspects, it’s because we already visited these conditions when defining what excesses of salt, fat and calories can do to the human body.

What the study found was that, 'If inactivity were not eliminated, but decreased instead by 10% or 25%, more than 533,000 and more than 1.3 million deaths respectively, could be averted every year.'

As gamers, we sit, we play, we fart. We’re not known for our marathon times. During my heaviest – and I mean that in both senses of the word – gaming years, I’d play myself into a state of glazed indifference. To a point where I had to hold my hand up at the television and say, ‘No, no really, I couldn’t possibly shoot another thing’. Because games want me to keep playing, and they’re excellent at persuading me to do just that.

It’s not that I have a problem with the existence of Domino's. Neither do I take issue with the dietary choices others choose for themselves. As a society, we're mostly indifferent whether those around us flap, flail and flounder beneath the golden arches or spend too long checking the ingredients on a pack of organically grown broccoli. What I question is the wisdom of a console brand using its guest status in the living room to storefront a fast food chain. In the midst of a global obesity epidemic, I question the evangelisation of poor diet to a vulnerable subculture.

Obesity is linked to higher rates of chronic conditions than smoking, drinking, or poverty. And yet, if Kinect understood the words ‘Marlboro, send me fags’ and a carton of smokes arrived at your door within thirty minutes, the backlash would be so sudden, so powerful that articles like this one would never be afforded the time to be written.

Acceptability changes over time. The power we once allowed alcohol and tobacco is diminished beyond recognition. I shake my head and tut at the days when we could drink and smoke on trains and buses and I’m grateful we live in a more enlightened world. It’s time for companies and corporations to take a more responsible stance on the effects of fast food on public health.

Microsoft was offered the right to reply, but declined to comment.

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