The ads that interrupt our daily lives usually serve as a minor distraction at best, an annoyance at worst. But when those ads encourage people to consume unhealthy food or beverages, the impact can be dire.
Fast food companies have deep pockets and evidence-based methods meticulously tailored to woo us. They aren’t going to stop making the case that cheeseburgers and fries make for a cheap and delicious lunch, just as beer companies everywhere will stay committed to the subliminal message that beer is the key to fun and happiness. But researchers and public health advocates are working on a response. According to a 2017 paper in the Annual Review of Public Health, science-driven, field-tested marketing campaigns could protect consumers by undermining the messages promoting unhealthy products.
Inspired by a successful campaign to reduce smoking among teenagers, researchers are looking to apply similar tactics to other potentially harmful products, including sugary drinks, alcohol and fast foods. The approach — called countermarketing — draws on psychology and advertising science to blunt the effectiveness of ads and the appeal of the products. Chris Palmedo, a health and media researcher at the City University of New York and lead author of paper, talked about countermarketing from his office in Manhattan.
The following has been edited for length and clarity.
What is countermarketing?
Countermarketing is an advertising strategy that breaks down the hidden motives of corporations and undercuts their messages. Inoculation is a good analogy. A countermarketing campaign helps consumers see the reality behind the ads, and that inoculates them against the message.
The best example is the Truth campaign, an antismoking initiative aimed at teens that went nationwide in 2000. The campaign recognized that kids smoked because they wanted to rebel, and they knew that tobacco companies encouraged the image of a rebellious smoker. They turned that image on its head by asking a question: Are you really rebelling by giving all of your money to these big corporations run by old white guys?
It was a game changer in public health education, and it definitely helped drive down teen smoking. In 2001, nearly 30 percent of all high school students reported smoking cigarettes. By 2016, only about 20 percent were using tobacco of any kind.
Ads for food and alcohol often emphasize fun, friends and other good things in life. What’s the hidden message that needs to be exposed?
Companies have an obvious profit motive, but there’s a lot that goes unsaid. Food companies, for example, spend billions trying to turn young people into lifelong consumers. If the kids aren’t buying the products themselves, they’re nagging their parents.
Many companies aren’t selling their products for what they really are. They’re selling emotions. When it comes to marketing, emotions can be much more effective than facts. Countermarketing appeals to other emotions that put the products in a more realistic light.
What are the emotions conjured by countermarketing?
Countermarketing harnesses the power of negative emotions such as anger, outrage and disgust. But it also taps into more positive values like the desire for social justice. People need to realize that a few large companies are investing billions of dollars to make us less healthy. Are we OK with that? If we recognize that corporations sometimes work against our best interests, a sense of justice might lead us to avoid their products.
Why was the Truth campaign so successful?
The campaign — which included a series of slick TV ads, radio spots and magazine inserts — showed that young people could rebel by rejecting marketing. In one of their best and most famous ads, teenagers stacked up “body bags” in front of the headquarters of a tobacco company. The kids were using bullhorns to shout at befuddled men in suits staring down from their office windows. The symbolism was perfect.
The Truth people realized that previous antismoking efforts were actually encouraging kids to smoke. For decades, public health advocates were counting on the surgeon general and other authority figures to deliver a message about the dangers of tobacco to young people. But kids smoke because they want to rebel, so those efforts backfired. The message had to come from their peers.
How would a campaign against alcohol or unhealthy foods be different from an antitobacco campaign?
Everybody knows tobacco is unhealthy, so the Truth campaign didn’t spend a lot of time talking about the health effects of tobacco. Based on the research I’ve done, education would have to be a much more central part of countermarketing campaigns around things like soda and unhealthy foods. Especially soda. I did focus groups with patients at a health center, and they had a lot of questions about soda. Is clear soda healthier than brown soda? Is Gatorade healthy? That sort of thing. We’d have to provide information about the dangers of too much soda, fast food or alcohol if we want a countermarketing campaign to really break through.
What lessons from the Truth campaign could be applied to other unhealthy products?
Truth drove home the message that tobacco companies were marketing their deadly product and encouraging people to pick up a bad habit. We can make a similar point about food, alcohol and soda companies. They are relentlessly marketing their products to specific groups. There’s even a word for ads targeted at Hispanic communities: “Hispandering.” They market sweet or low-priced alcohol in low-income communities where people have enough health problems as it is. We should tell people that that kind of behavior is outside the norms of civilized society.
Besides tobacco, what have countermarketing campaigns targeted?
There’s a well-known campaign in New York City called Pouring on the Pounds. It explains how many calories are in soda and how it can be converted to fat. If you’re drinking liquid sugar, for all intents and purposes, you’re consuming fat. Among other things, they created a disgusting video of a guy pouring fat into his gullet.
The Bigger Picture Campaign at the University of California, San Francisco, created a giant inflatable soda can that looks exactly like a Coke can except it says “Diabetes” instead of Coke. They’d put it up in front of schools and other strategic locations. Defacing popular brands — a practice called culture jamming — can be an effective way to send a message. Sometimes the practice is a little more direct, as when activist groups spray graffiti on billboards selling alcohol in their neighborhoods.
Is there much evidence that countermarketing campaigns against unhealthy food or soda actually change behaviors?
So far, it’s mostly hypothetical. I’m trying to do more research in that field. There was a 2016 study of eighth graders who were selecting snacks for a reward. One group had received health messages about the foods that were bad for them. Another was shown a countermarketing campaign that tapped into their feelings of social justice, autonomy and rebellion. Among other things, the kids were shown news reports describing how companies engineer foods to make them more addictive. The kids who just got the health information ended up eating a lot of unhealthy foods, but the kids exposed to countermarketing made better choices. It’s just one study, but it’s promising.
Who would pay for a nationwide campaign against soda, fast food or alcohol?
The money behind the Truth campaign came from the Master Settlement Agreement, a multibillion-dollar settlement that the tobacco companies signed in 1998. But unless a court finds that fast food companies have been defrauding customers, that won’t work for hamburgers. The National Institutes of Health could fund a campaign, but that doesn’t seem very likely in the current political climate. The Pouring on the Pounds campaign was run by the New York City Health Department, but it was funded by private donors. For now, we need to count on the patronage of public health advocates like Michael Bloomberg.
What does the rise of social media mean for countermarketing?
Social media gives us new opportunities, especially for younger people. In order for a countermarketing campaign to be successful, the message has to come from your peers, not an authority figure. Social media gives young people a forum to discuss these issues. Then again, companies have learned how to use Twitter, too. A study in Australia compared the Twitter accounts of groups advocating safe drinking and accounts from alcohol companies. The tweets from the alcohol companies were more likely to have hashtags and to be forwarded to others. They had greater interactivity and effectiveness. But that didn’t happen by accident. It took a lot of trial and error — and a lot of money — for all of these companies to figure out how to get the most out of social media. Countermarketing has some work to do to catch up.