The findings are sure to shed further light on the factors influencing the nutritional choices of individuals, especially children, and reinforce ongoing concerns about childhood obesity, which has more than doubled in children and quadrupled in adolescents in the past 30 years.
Researchers from the University of California and California State University began reviewing literature on advertising and marketing communications, to assess how they affected consumer health. Particular attention was paid to how children responded to food-related advertising and product labelling. Individual differences in consumer response were also examined.
Advertiser's tricks of the trade
One study found that promotional materials that highlighted a healthy kid's meal came with a toy increased its choice share, but only when the unhealthy alternative meal did not include a toy. Another study found that materials depicting overweight (versus normal weight) cartoon characters activated an overweight stereotype and increased children's food intake.
The researchers also found evidence that food public service announcements (PSAs) for children were more effective when they talked about the positive benefits of consuming more, rather than talk about the negative consequences of consuming less; and when they used affirmation rather than negation language, for example, “more healthy” as compared to “more unhealthy”.
However, the opposite effects were found for PSAs to discourage unhealthy lollipop eating. Older children were found to be more affected by these linguistic variations. In different work involving field studies at schools, pledges, incentives, and competitions were found to encourage children to eat healthier; however, competitions and incentives were better for younger than older children.
Yet another study found that a ban on ads directly aimed at children (food or otherwise) was found to be related to less fast food consumption.
“While a single overarching theory of advertising effects remains elusive, it is clear that advertising influences the health of consumers of all ages including children,” the paper said.
“It is also evident that responses to advertising often depend on various consumer characteristics; thus, tailoring the message content and execution to consumers in the target audience is critically important,” the paper added.
The researcher’s findings echo those from a study carried out by the NGO Foodwatch last year. They found that European manufacturers continued to almost exclusively advertise unhealthy products to children, despite pledges to change their ways.
In 2007, many of the largest European food companies committed to an ‘EU Pledge’ in which they promised to "change the way they advertise to children". As part of the pledge, they made promises to only advertise foodstuffs to children under 12 if the products fulfil specific nutritional criteria.
However, Foodwatch’s study suggested that manufacturers continued to market almost exclusively unhealthy foods – with 90% of products surveyed failing to meet nutritional standards that the companies signed up to.
Source: Current Opinion in Psychology
Published online ahead of print: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.copsyc.2015.12.008
“The effects of advertising and other marketing communications on health-related consumer behaviors”
Authors: Pechmann C, Catlin J R.