A large part of the junk food industry advertising is targeted at teenagers and kids. Teenagers are exposed to a large volume of advertising, which produces a positive image of junk food and encourages them to eat more than they should. However, researchers propose a way to tackle that: by taking advantage of the teens’ tendency to rebel against authority.
“Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food, to connect it with feelings of happiness and fun,” said lead author Christopher J. Bryan, from the University of Texas at Austin. “One of the most exciting things is that we got kids to have a more negative immediate gut reaction to junk food and junk food marketing, and a more positive immediate gut reaction to healthy foods,” said Bryan.
Stick it to the man
The study was carried out in two stages. For the preliminary stages, the team went into classrooms and had one group of pupils exposed to a fact-based exposé-style article about big food companies. The idea was to show children how these companies use marketing and manipulation to hook consumers to junk food for their own financial gain. The article also focused on how advertising often targets vulnerable populations, like the very young and the very poor.
Meanwhile, the control group received traditional materials about the benefits of healthy eating and the downsides of junk food. The researchers then followed the foods the teens ate the next day.
The group that read the exposé had fewer junk food snacks and was more likely to drink water over sugary sodas. This seems to support the idea that taking advantage of the teens’ rebellion tendencies can work in this context — showing them how companies are trying to manipulate them can trigger the “stick it to the man” impulse.
In the new study, released today, researchers took it one step further: teens first read the marketing exposé, and then carried out an activity designed to reinforce the negative portrayal of misleading food marketing. The students were given images of food advertising on iPads and were told to “vandalize” them — write over them or draw in graffiti-style — and turn them from misleading to true.
The kids were then followed for three months and their dietary decisions analyzed. Those who were part of the drawing group significantly reduced consumption of junk food — particularly boys, whose consumption of unhealthy foods in the cafeteria dropped by 31% compared to the control group. The reduction in girls’ consumption was less clear.
“One of the most exciting things is that we got kids to have a more negative immediate gut reaction to junk food and junk food marketing, and a more positive immediate gut reaction to healthy foods,” said Bryan.
The unusual approach seems to be very efficient, much more effective than conventional approaches, researchers emphasize.
“Most past interventions seemed to assume that alerting teenagers to the negative long-term health consequences of bad diets would be an effective way to motivate them to change their behavior,” said Bryan. “That’s clearly a problematic assumption. We thought it could be the main reason why no one has been able to get teenagers to change their eating habits in a lasting way.”
Fighting childhood obesity
Childhood obesity has risen dramatically in recent years, with almost 1 in 3 children in the US being overweight or obese. In other parts of the world, childhood obesity has also risen dramatically — by 1000% in the past four decades. Enabling teenagers to make healthier food decisions and be more aware of the consequences of their diets is a crucial step towards fighting those trends, but so far, methods of successfully achieving this have been few and far between. This is where innovative approaches, such as the one in this study, could make a difference.
“Adolescence is a developmental stage when even the lengthiest health promotion approaches have had virtually no effect. Because so many social problems, from education to risky behavior, have their roots in the teen years, this study paves the way for solutions to some of the thorniest challenges for promoting global public health.”
“Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food, to connect it with feelings of happiness and fun,” said Bryan. “What we’ve done is turn that around on the food marketers by exposing this manipulation to teenagers, triggering their natural strong aversion to being controlled by adults. If we could make more kids aware of that, it might make a real difference.”
The study has been published in Nature Human Behavior.