Letting teenagers know they’re being manipulated by food marketers may be a deceptively simple way to encourage healthier eating, according to research from the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.1
Many of the leading chronic diseases threatening human health, such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes, are the result of poor dietary choices. These dietary habits may start in childhood, in part due to pervasive and carefully orchestrated advertisements from the junk food industry.
Teenagers are among those who are heavily targeted by food manufacturers, and public health researchers have long been looking for ways to get teens to eat better. Tapping into their natural desire to rebel against adult authority may be key to countering the manipulation spread via junk food ads.
Telling Teens They’re Being Manipulated May Lead to Healthier Eating
No one likes to be deceived, even in adolescence. In preliminary research, a group of eighth graders read an exposé that revealed the manipulative practices and deceptive product labels used by marketing companies aimed at pedaling addictive junk food in order to boost their profits. A control group of students read conventional information about healthier eating.
The next day, the students who read the exposé chose to eat less junk food and drink water instead of soda.2 In the next part of the study, another group of eighth graders read the exposé and were sent images of marketing material on their tablets. They were told to draw over the ads in graffiti style to make them true.
It turned out that those who read about the junk food industry’s manipulation chose healthier foods for the remainder of the school year — a period of about three months. Teen boys, in particular, a group that’s notoriously keen on junk food, reduced their junk food intake by 31% compared to those who read material on healthy eating.
Study author Christopher J. Bryan of the University of Chicago said in a news release, “Most past interventions seemed to assume that alerting teenagers to the negative long-term health consequences of bad diets would be an effective way to motivate them to change their behavior. That’s clearly a problematic assumption. We thought it could be the main reason why no one has been able to get teenagers to change their eating habits in a lasting way.”3
Instead, tapping into teens’ natural desire to rebel against authority proved to be an effective way to prompt significant changes in dietary choices. Teen girls also responded to reading about junk food makers’ manipulative marketing practices, showing a more negative immediate response to junk food. However, their purchases in the cafeteria stayed mostly the same regardless of which material they read.
The researchers speculated that girls may have responded more to the healthy eating material because it talked about calories, and they felt social pressure to be thin. However, the exposé material may be preferable, as it led to similar eating habits with less potential for body shaming.4
“These findings suggest that reframing unhealthy dietary choices as incompatible with important values could be a low-cost, scalable solution to producing lasting, internalized change in adolescents’ dietary attitudes and choices,” the researchers explained.5
Marketers Using Instagram to Get Youth Emotionally Attached to Junk Food
Youth are especially vulnerable to social pressure, and they spend time regularly on social media. This makes platforms like Instagram a treasure trove of potential new clients for junk food companies.
Researchers conducted a content analysis of 15 Instagram accounts for the “most popular, energy-dense, nutrient-poor food and beverage brands on Instagram,” using 12 months of posts.6 Each brand used six to 11 different marketing strategies but typically adhered to an overall theme such as athleticism or being relatable.
While the Instagram accounts were highly branded, they did not necessarily contain much product information or health claims. The researchers believed the brands are using social media platforms such as Instagram to manipulate consumer emotions rather than to present information.
Fortunately, you may be able to fight back simply by letting your teen know about the hidden motives behind such posts: Junk food companies trying to hook kids on junk food while they’re young. The featured study also found that framing junk food marketing as a form of manipulation helps to counteract the emotional connections the junk food marketers are counting on.
“Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food, to connect it with feelings of happiness and fun,” said Bryan. “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.”7
Kids Are Exposed to 27 Junk Food Ads a Day
In the last 30 years, the incidence of childhood overweight and obesity has grown by 47%. The marketing of junk food has contributed to this increase, as it encourages the repeated purchase and consumption of unhealthy foods.8 In order to test just how pervasive junk food marketing is in the average child’s life, researchers used wearable cameras that took photos every seven seconds.
A group of 168 children wore the cameras for four days, revealing they were exposed to junk food marketing 27.3 times a day, at home, in public spaces and even at school. Marketing for sugary drinks, fast food, candy and snack foods were the types most commonly encountered by the children. The researchers believe:9
“This research suggests that children live in an obesogenic food marketing environment that promotes obesity as a normal response to their everyday environment.
Children are more than twice as likely to be exposed to non-core food marketing, not recommended to be marketed to children, than core food marketing, and to be exposed multiple times a day across various settings and via multiple media. All children, regardless of socio-economic position, were exposed to more non-core than core food marketing, and there appears to be some ethnic patterning.”
Indeed, a report from the University of Connecticut Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity found that junk food companies often target black and Hispanic consumers. “Therefore, greater exposure to this marketing by Hispanic and black children and teens, both in the media and in their communities, likely contributes to diet-related health disparities affecting communities of color, including obesity, diabetes and heart disease.”10
Further, it’s been shown that intake of junk foods increases significantly during or shortly after exposure to junk food ads.11
Junk Food Marketers Rely on Persuasive Marketing Techniques
In their quest to hook kids on junk food early on, marketers use a variety of persuasive marketing techniques. When researchers conducted a systematic review of eight online databases, they found the most commonly reported marketing techniques used to promote food to children on television. These included:12
- Premium offers
- Promotional characters
- Nutrition and health-related claims
- The theme of taste
- The emotional appeal of fun
When children associate a food with an animated character, they perceive it to taste better and have a stronger preference for that food.13 Marketers know this, and in a study comparing the marketing tactics used in ads geared toward children or adults, those aimed at children emphasized toy premiums and movie tie-ins, as well as brands and logos.14
They also emphasized a street view of the restaurant, perhaps so children can more easily recognize a fast food restaurant as they’re driving by, while the adult ads emphasized taste, portion size and price. The most commonly reported persuasive techniques used on television to promote food to children were the use of premium offers, promotional characters, nutrition and health-related claims, the theme of taste and the emotional appeal of fun.
Health Risks of a Junk Food Diet
Focusing your diet on junk food is dangerous at any age, but children may suffer lifelong effects from too much junk food. Obesity among children is significantly associated with fast food intake,15 but the risks extend even beyond weight gain.
In one study, eating fast food three or more times per week was associated with an increased risk of severe asthma, rhinitis and eczema.16 Children who eat more fast food also progress slower academically, with lower test score gains in children who ate the most fast food compared to those who ate none.17
One British study also revealed that kids who ate a predominantly processed food diet at age 3 had lower IQ scores at age 8.5.18 Nutritional deficiencies early on in life can also lead to deficits in brain function that put your child at risk of behavioral problems — from hyperactivity to aggression — that can last into the teenage years and beyond.
Other research also found junk food consumption may increase the risk of psychiatric distress and violent behaviors in children and adolescents, suggesting that improved eating habits may be an effective approach for improving mental health.19 The World Health Organization (WHO) is among those calling for more protections for children from the harmful effects of junk food and junk food marketing:20
“Food advertising and other forms of marketing have been shown to influence children’s food preferences, purchasing behaviour and overall dietary behaviour. Marketing has also been associated with an increased risk of overweight and obesity in children.
The habits children develop early in life may encourage them to adopt unhealthy dietary practices which persist into adulthood, increasing the likelihood of overweight, obesity and associated health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.”
Tell Your Teen the Truth About Junk Food
The truth is, junk food is highly addictive, and it’s easy to become biologically hooked on these high-sugar foods. The more junk food you eat, the more you’ll likely crave, and this is true for kids, too. However, breaking free from the trap and focusing your diet on real food instead is one of the best health moves you can make, and children are no exception.
For younger kids, try to get them involved in meal planning, shopping for healthy foods and cooking. You can even plant a vegetable garden together. Ultimately, when kids are young, you’re the best role model for a healthy diet, so choose to eat real foods, and your kids will follow suit.
For teens, when they start to rebel, use it to their own advantage. As the featured study showed, telling your teen about the profit-driven motives behind junk food ads may be enough to help trigger a newfound desire for healthier eating.