Research supports efforts to protect children from misleading food promotions
New research reveals that counter-advertising could be part of the solution to combating unhealthy food choices in the children's snack food aisle, but children can't be expected to accurately interpret the counter-advertisement on their own.
Two research studies, undertaken by Cancer Council Victoria and supported by the Bupa Health Foundation, tested children's1 and parents'2 appraisals of unhealthy foods featuring front-of-pack promotions and the impact of counter-advertising. Counter-advertising is a marketing tool which provides an opposing message to an advertisement or promotion.
Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Behavioral Research in Cancer at Cancer Council Victoria, Dr Helen Dixon said the findings showed some children were at risk of misinterpreting counter-advertising, which should be targeted at parents.
"The goal of the counter-ads is to reduce people's susceptibility to persuasion by commercial marketing," Dr Dixon said.
"These counter-ads aim to expose misleading food promotions that position unhealthy products in a healthier way, for example with unclear nutrient content claims which highlight positive product ingredients but not the hidden ‘nasties', or through an on-pack endorsement by a prominent sports star.
The research found counter-advertising to be a successful tool in contesting misleading front-of-pack promotions for parents, with those who viewed it having a 40 per cent lower likelihood of choosing the unhealthy product as the healthiest of those presented. Counter-advertising also had a small, but positive influence on children who understood them. However, the tactic was ineffective with children who misinterpreted the counter-ads.
Dr Dixon cautioned that counter-advertising is a difficult tool to employ and is not something we have seen a lot of in Australia. However, successful examples do exist internationally. In France, all advertisements for processed, sweetened or salted food and drinks are required to carry cautions urging consumers to stop unhealthy snacking, exercise more and eat more fruits and vegetables.
The Bupa Health Foundation's, Dr Paul Bates, said counter-advertising could encourage parents of young children to make healthier food choices.
"Most Australian parents are trying to do the right thing by their children and feed them healthy, nutritious foods, but misleading advertising can unknowingly get in the way of this," Dr Bates said.
"We're at a critical crossroads in terms of our health, and a higher level of health literacy in parents will be a key factor in decreasing obesity and chronic disease in children.
"We can't expect children to be savvy to marketing tools, so while counter-advertising is a positive tool in encouraging parents to critically assess a product, these studies also confirm the need to avoid exposing children to incorrect or misleading nutritional messages in the first place," Dr Bates said.
Dr Dixon said the findings regarding the impact on children of counter advertising were particularly interesting.
"Our previous studies have shown on-pack promotions such as celebrity endorsements and nutrient content claims can sway parents' and children's food preferences towards unhealthy and less nutritious options. In this latest research, the counter-advertisements empowered parents to critically evaluate food products bearing these types of promotions.
"However, while counter-advertisements could help children who understand them to be more skeptical of misleading on-pack promotions, this approach could have unintended consequences for those children who misinterpret them.
"The most effective solution for combating the unhealthy effects of food advertising on children may be to regulate against certain forms of food promotion. However, if this isn't possible, these studies indicate counter-advertising specifically targeted to parents could assist," Dr Dixon said.
Findings were published in the Social Science & Medicine, 30 June 2014, and Journal of Nutrition Education and Behaviour, 14 July 2014. Two commentary papers were published in Social Science & Medicine.3
1 Dixon H, Scully M, Kelly B, Chapman K, Wakefield M. (2014). Can counter-advertising reduce pre-adolescent children's susceptibility to front-of-package promotions on unhealthy foods? : Experimental research. Social Science & Medicine; 116:211-219. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.02.031
2 Dixon H, Scully M, Kelly B, Donovan R, Chapman K, Wakefield M. (in press). Counter-advertising may reduce parent's susceptibility to front-of-package promotions on unhealthy foods. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jneb.2014.05.008
3 Roberto CA. (2014). Counter-advertising to combat unhealthy food marketing will not be enough commentary on "Can counter-advertising reduce pre-adolescent children's susceptibility to front-of-package promotions on unhealthy foods? Experimental Research." Soc Sci Med. 116: 220-222. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.06.005. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 24974000.
Dixon H, Scully M, Kelly B, Chapman K, Wakefield M. (2014). Response to: Counter-advertising to combat unhealthy food marketing will not be enough. Commentary on "Can counter-advertising reduce pre-adolescent children's susceptibility to front-of-package promotions on unhealthy foods? Experimental research". Soc Sci Med. 116: 223-224. oi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.06.050.