A new study finds that reframing how teens see food-marketing campaigns can spur them, particularly boys, to make healthier daily dietary choices for an extended period of time.
The findings, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, show that when teens are exposed to the idea that corporations are trying to hook them on addictive junk food for financial gain, the teens opt for healthier foods.
The method works in part by tapping into teens’ natural desire to rebel against authority, or “stick it to the man,” say the researchers.
“Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food, to connect it with feelings of happiness and fun,” said researcher Christopher J. Bryan from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
“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.”
In 2016, the researchers conducted a preliminary study with eighth graders at a Texas middle school. One group of students read a fact-based, exposé-style article on big food companies. The article framed the corporations as manipulative marketers trying to hook consumers on addictive junk food for financial gain. The articles also described deceptive product labels and advertising practices that target vulnerable populations, including very young children and the poor.
A separate, control group of students read traditional material from existing health education programs about the benefits of healthy eating. The findings show that the group that read the exposés chose fewer junk food snacks and selected water over sugary sodas the next day.
In the new study, teens first read the marketing exposé material, and then did an activity called “Make It True,” designed to reinforce the negative portrayal of food marketing. The students received images of food advertisements on iPads with instructions to write or draw on the ads — graffiti style — to transform the ads from false to true.
Importantly, the effects of the marketing exposé intervention lasted for the rest of the school year — a full three months. The impact was particularly significant among boys, who reduced their daily purchases of unhealthy drinks and snacks in the school cafeteria by 31 percent, compared with the control group.
“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.
Appealing to teenagers’ natural impulse to “stick it to the man” and their developmentally heightened sense of fairness may finally provide a way for the public-health community to compete against dramatically-better-funded junk food marketers.
This brief, inexpensive, and easily scalable intervention appears to provide lasting protection against the enticing power of junk food marketing, and to change eating habits for the better.
“This study shows it’s possible to change behavior during adolescence using a light-touch intervention,” said David S. Yeager from the University of Texas at Austin.
“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.”