Published on 14th May 2019


Reframing how teenagers view food marketing campaigns could be a simple way to promote healthier dietary choices, according to a study published in Nature Human Behaviour1,2 – the key being to tap into their natural desire to rebel.

Scientists found that when teens were exposed to the idea that corporations try to get them hooked on addictive junk food for financial gain, they opted for healthier foods and drinks. Boys were especially receptive to the message, with a 31 per cent reduction in daily purchases of unhealthy snacks and drinks (e.g. sugary drinks, cookies, crisps) and a 35 per cent overall improvement in the health profile of their purchases in the three months after the intervention, compared to teens in the control group. 

The intervention involved 362 eighth grade students (aged 13-15) in a Texas, USA middle school. One group of students was given a fact-based, exposé-style article on big food companies, presenting them as manipulative marketers trying to hook consumers on addictive junk food for money. The stories also described deceptive product labels and advertising practices that target vulnerable populations, including young children and the poor. A control group of students received traditional material from existing health education programmes about healthy eating benefits.

The intervention produced a change in both boys’ and girls’ immediate emotional reactions to junk food marketing messages. Furthermore, teenage boys – who are often difficult to persuade when it comes to giving up junk food – continued making healthier food and drink choices in their school cafeteria three months later.

Lead author Christopher Bryan, an assistant professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, USA, said: "Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food, to connect it with feelings of happiness and fun. 

"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 was less conclusive about the effect of the intervention on teen girls' cafeteria purchases. Although girls also experienced a more negative immediate gut response to junk food after the exposé intervention, their daily cafeteria purchases were similar whether they read the exposé or the traditional health education material. The researchers suggest that, while traditional health education is ineffective at changing boys' behaviour, girls might respond to the body weight implications of a traditional approach that focuses more on health.


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