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What foods are U.S. supermarkets promoting? An analysis of supermarket sales circulars

Despite widespread use of newspapers and mailed circulars1, food advertising research has focused primarily on television advertising, with limited attention on newspaper ads. This study analyzed supermarket newspaper sales circulars to describe the foods advertised by leading supermarkets across the U.S. to compare regional differences (geographic and obesity-rate region) as well as differences with USDA’s MyPlate recommendations.

How Circulars Were Analyzed

Sales circulars issued between mid-September to early October 2011 were collected from the 2011 Top North American Retail Supermarket Chains2 in each state. Each food item was grouped (i.e., MyPlate groups plus sweets, fats, and miscellaneous) and the percentage of space it occupied computed. Only the fi rst page was included in the sample to permit similar comparisons across stores and also because readers regularly scan the first advertising page3.

What Were the Results?

The greatest proportion of space on the front page of supermarket sales circulars was devoted to protein foods, most of which were meat. One-fifth of the advertising space was occupied by grains. Foods in the fruits and vegetables groups each were allotted about one-tenth of the sampled advertising space—about the same amount of space allocated to sweets. States with less than a 25% obese population devoted signifi cantly more space to fruits than other regions. Sweets and sugary drinks occupied signifi cantly more space in the states with an obesity rate of at least 30% than those with lower obesity rates. Supermarkets in the southern U.S. tended to allocate significantly more advertising space to sweets and the western region tended to devote signifi cantly less space to vegetables and more to fruits. Overall, supermarket circulars devoted significantly less space to dairy, fruits, and vegetables than MyPlate recommendations and significantly more space to protein foods.


The rank order of the advertising space devoted to each food group (i.e., protein, grains, sweets, dairy, fruits, vegetables, fats) is similar to the proportion each food group typically contributed to diets in the US4, as well as the proportion of the food-at-home dollar spent5. These similarities of space and food-at-home expenditures coupled with positive relationships for fruit, vegetable, and sugary drink space and intake (or purchase) of these foods groups leads to the consideration of whether sales circulars are shaping dietary intake or reinforcing existing patterns6. The limited research available suggests that sales promotions can influence short-term purchasing but may not shift dietary patterns7,8.
However, econometric research using sales data as a proxy for dietary intake indicate that sales promotions have the potential to infl uence consumer purchasing and may encourage purchases and consumption9.

More research is needed to determine how sales circulars affect consumer food choices and discover how the power of the advertising channel can be harnessed to promote healthy dietary patterns.

  1. Newspaper Association of America. Why Newspaper Media? They Add Value For Advertisers. Arlington, VA.2010.
  2. Supermarket News. 2011 North American Food Retailers. New York October 15, 2011.
  3. Greene F. Newspaper Advertising Placement Tips. 2012; http://smallbusiness.chron.com/newspaper-advertising-placement-tips-11034.html. Accessed June 19, 2012.
  4. Grimm K, Blanck K, Scanlon KS, Moore L, Grummer-Strawn L, Foltz J. State-specifi c trends in fruit and vegetable consumption among adults- United States, 2000-2009. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. 2010;59(35):1125-1130.
  5. Todd J, Leibtag E, Penberthy C. Geographic Differences in the Relative Price of Healthy Foods: United States Department of Agriculture, Economic Research Service; June 2011.
  6. Belk R, Pollay R. Images of ourselves. The good live in twentieth centry advertising. Journal of Consumer Research. 1985;11:887-897.
  7. Hawkes C. Sales promotions and food consumption. Nutrition Reviews. 2009;67(6):333-342.
  8. French SA. Pricing Effects on Food Choices. The Journal of Nutrition. March 1, 2003 2003;133(3):841S-843S.
  9. Ailawadi K, Neslin S. The effect of promotion on consumption: buying more and consuming it faster. Journal of Marketing Research. 1998;35:390-398.