Fighting back: can counter-advertising minimise the effects of unhealthy food marketing on pre-adolescent children? (#16)
Aim: To test whether counter-advertisements debunking misleading child-oriented front-of-pack food promotions makes pre-adolescent children less susceptible to influence by such promotions. Since children have lower media literacy levels due to their stage of cognitive development, specific research questions explored were (1) whether the effectiveness of such counter-ads is contingent on pre-adolescent children having understood them; and (2) whether such counter-ads can be detrimental when they are misinterpreted.
Method: A between-subjects experimental design using a web-based methodology. 1,351 grade 5 and 6 students (mean age 11 years) from primary schools located in metropolitan Melbourne, Australia participated. Participants were randomly shown an animated web banner advertisement (counter-ad challenging front-of-pack promotion/control ad) and a pair of food packages from the same product category comprising an unhealthy product featuring a front-of-pack promotion (nutrient content claims/sports celebrity endorsement) and a healthier control pack without a front-of-pack promotion. Participants first viewed their assigned advertisement and recorded their reactions to it. Next they viewed their assigned pair of food packages and chose which product they would want more and completed ratings of the unhealthy product.
Results: Overall, 66% of children who viewed a counter-ad understood its main message. These children rated the front-of-pack promotion as less believable and rated the unhealthy product bearing the front-of-pack promotion as less healthy compared to the control group. However, children who misunderstood the counter-ad rated the unhealthy product bearing a front-of-pack promotion as more healthy, showed stronger intentions for wanting the product and rated the front-of pack promotion more favourably than those who correctly understood the counter-ad.
Conclusion: If misunderstood, nutrition counter-advertising could be counter-productive. If public health organisations and government pursue counter-advertising as a strategy to reduce the negative influence of unhealthy food marketing among pre-adolescent children, caution is needed in designing the counter-ads to guard against possible boomerang effects.