What an opportunity to watch the best young (and in Ian Miller’s case, not so young - imagine 10 Olympic trips, must be a medal he can be given for endurance) athletes in the world competing in their passions. I have certainly been enjoying watching. Ah, but I have an issue to raise. Why must we endure those commercials that try to pair unhealthy food choices with athletic achievement and health, especially the level of health demonstrated by Olympians. The absurd irony of associating these products with anything to do with the Olympic spirit is an insult. We saw this clearly with the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010. Now, again we see junk food and sugary drinks linked to athleticism. Each time I see one of these ads I want to yell out - “you can bet that the athletes didn’t get to the Olympics drinking/eating that”.
It’s sad really. We are being manipulated with one of the oldest and most reliable learning methods - classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a foundation of our ability to learn. Here is how it goes. You start with something that elicits a response. In this case, the image of a lean strong body gliding through the water, or kicking a soccer ball with precision, or jumping hurdles with a rippling 6-pack visible (no, not THAT kind of 6-pack). In the language of learning theory these are the unconditioned stimulus and the unconditioned response (unconditioned because they don’t have to be learned, they just go together). Now comes the scary part. You add a new stimulus with the unconditioned stimulus. So show a food or drink in the hand of the athlete just before you show the emotion-eliciting activity. Show this again and again and you develop a conditioned stimulus (the food or drink) that elicits the same reaction as the unconditioned stimulus. Still with me? So now the food and drink elicits the positive feelings associated with the original stimulus. So seeing someone “break through” their barriers to achieve greatness (a positive, motivating thing to see) is associated in your mind with the product. You now associate the product with the sense of athletic accomplishment. Despite your intellectual knowledge that drinking a sports drink isn’t the reason people get faster, at an emotional level this is exactly what you believe. You can’t help; classical conditioning is the foundation of learning (guess why we only put our hands on a glowing stove element once?).
I have one more thing to say and then I am done. Not only are we unconsciously sucked into this trap we also end up blaming ourselves when the dreams we have been trained to see associated with the product don’t come true. This is why I believe that promoting health in ourselves and especially our children requires recognition of these manipulative practices and preventing them from occurring.
So enjoy the Olympics. Hats off to any of you who have figured out how to avoid the commercials.