Protect Teens from Junk Food Marketing by Reinforcing Their Desire To Rebel, Says Study
In the fight against obesity, researchers have been trying, for decades, to find a way to convince teenagers to skip junk food and eat healthily, with little to no effect. Adolescents are exposed to extensive marketing for junk food -- one of the biggest obstacles that researchers have to overcome. Such marketing is, by design, meant to foster strong positive associations with junk food in kids’ minds driving them to overeat. A new study has revealed that a simple and brief intervention can provide lasting protection for adolescents against the harmful effects of food marketing.
The research was conducted by University of Chicago Booth School of Business and published in Nature Human Behaviour. The lead authors found that reframing how students view food-marketing campaigns can spur adolescents, particularly boys, to make healthier daily dietary choices for an extended period of time. This is essentially possible by tapping into teens’ natural desire to rebel against authority.
“Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food, to connect it with feeling of happiness and fun,” said Dr Christopher J Bryan, one of the authors of the study. Biggest major finding of in the experiment is that the intervention helped in producing a long-lasting change in boys’ and girls’ immediate, gut-level, emotional reactions to junk food marketing messages. Additionally, teenage boys, a notoriously difficult group to convince when it comes to giving up junk food, started making healthier food and drink choices in their school cafeteria.
“One of the most exciting things is that we got kids to have a more negative immediate guy reaction to junk food and junk food marketing and a more positive immediate gut reaction to healthy foods,” said Dr Bryan. The researchers had conducted a preliminary study among eighth standard students at a Texas middle school in 2016. Inside classrooms, one group of students was asked to 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 stories also described deceptive product labels and advertising practices that target vulnerable populations, including very young children and the poor. A different control group of students was given traditional material from existing health education programmes about the benefits of healthy eating.
The researchers found that the group that read the exposés chose fewer junk food snacks and selected water over sugary sodas the next day.
This recent study conducted a similar experiment with teenagers where they first read the marketing exposé material and then did an activity called ‘Make It True’. This activity was meant to reinforce the negative portrayal of food marketing, wherein students were given images of food advertisements on iPads with instructions to write or draw on the ads to transform them from false to true. The study also used a new sample of eighth standard students and found that the effects of the marketing exposé intervention endured for the remainder of the school year - a full three months.
The effects were particularly impressive among boys, who reduced their daily purchases of unhealthy drinks and snacks in the school cafeteria by 31% in that period, compared with the control group. This relatively simple intervention could be an early sign of a public health game changer. “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 health foods,” said Dr Bryan.
Teenagers are known have a 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.
However, the study was less conclusive about the intervention’s effect on teen girls’ cafeteria purchases. Although, like boys, girls experienced a more negative immediate gut response to junk food after the exposé intervention, their daily cafeteria purchases were found to be similar regardless of whether they read the exposé or the traditional health education material.
The researchers are still unclear on whether the similar purchases meant that neither intervention improved girls’ dietary choices or that both were effective in girls, but for different reasons. They suspect that, while traditional health education is completely ineffective at changing boys’ behaviour, it might influence girls’ choices because it mentions calories, which might trigger social pressure to be thin. If that is the case, it suggests that the exposé might be a preferable option for girls as well, as it achieves similar results with less risk of body shaming.
“This study shows it’s possible to change behaviour during adolescence using a light touch intervention,” said Prof David S Yeager from the University of Texas, 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 behaviour, 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.”