Teenagers are famously resistant to conventional advice on healthy eating, yet highly susceptible to food industry marketing designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food.
The reason the first approach fails is partly down to teenagers’ equally famous dislike of being told what to do. But what if you develop messaging that harnesses their innate rebelliousness? That’s the question researchers at the University of Chicago recently put to the test.
The Chicago team said they wanted to counter the influence of junk food advertising with an “intervention that frames manipulative food marketing as incompatible with important adolescent values, including social justice and autonomy from adult control”.
“…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.”
So the researchers created a study that looked at the eating habits of 350 school pupils (aged 13-14) at a school in Texas. One group was asked to read a fact-based, exposé-style article on big food companies, that showed how Big Food spend billions hooking consumers on junk food to enrich investors.
The effects of the intervention were striking, particularly among boys, who reduced their purchases of unhealthy snacks by about a third. As lead researcher Christopher Bryan put it, by exposing the manipulation of junk food marketers, the Chicago team triggered in the teenagers “their natural strong aversion to being controlled by adults.”
The study is particularly unusual in that it deliberately sets out to provoke a political response from young people. The researchers concluded 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”.