Turning Teens Against Junk Foods

The Lempert Report
May 30, 2019

A new study from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business finds that a simple and brief intervention can provide lasting protection for adolescents against these harmful effects of food marketing as reported on Phys.org.

In the study, "A Values-Alignment Intervention Protects Adolescents from the Effects of Food Marketing," published in Nature Human Behaviour, the researchers 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. 

The method works in part by tapping into teens' natural desire to rebel against authority.

The researchers went into classrooms and had one group of students read a fact-based, exposé-style article on big food companies. A separate, control group of students received traditional material from existing health education programs about the benefits of healthy eating. 

The expose-style 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.

The researchers found that the group that read the exposés chose fewer junk food snacks and selected water over sugary sodas the next day.

As a follow up, another study had teens first read the marketing exposé material, and then did an activity called "Make It True," 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.

These results went well beyond one day 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 percent in that time period, compared with the control group.

The study concludes that 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.