The Potential of Online ‘Counter-Ads’
Food marketers use various tactics to target potential buyers, such as alluring front-of-package claims (“good source of fibre” or “0% fat”) and celebrity endorsements. These tactics make it difficult, especially for youngsters, to critically evaluate the products’ healthiness. This makes them particularly susceptible to this type of food advertising. Researchers of a study in Social Science and Medicine wondered whether counter-advertising (messages contesting industry marketing, such as “do you know what you’re drinking”) can help reduce the impact of unhealthy food advertising on teens. It turns out that online counter-ads with messages contesting nutrient claims and sports celebrity endorsements indeed decreases teens' interest in and liking of unhealthy food products.
- Counter-ads (ads contesting nutrient content claims and sports celebrity endorsements by messages, such as “check the back before you snack” or “what if athletes ate the food they advertised for?”) make teens less susceptible to the influence of unhealthy food promotions.
- There is one important condition: to be successful, the main message of counter-ads must be perfectly understood by the target audience.
- For health practitioners it’s good to know that counter-advertising have the potential to trigger teens’ defense-mechanism against (unhealthy) food marketing. However, they must be assured that teens really understand the contesting messages in order to achieve success.
Does online counter-advertising with messages contesting industry marketing make teens less susceptible to the influence of (unhealthy) food promotions?
1,351 children in grades 5-6 (mean age: 11 years, 48% were boys)
Participants were shown either a regular animated online ad (i.e., a banner of a novelty calculator) or an animated online counter-ad (i.e., a banner of a fictitious fruit bar that contested nutrient content claims by messages such as “Unwrap the truth” or “Check the back before you snack” or a banner that contested sports celebrity endorsements by showing a male swimmer sinking towards the bottom of the water because of his body weight with messages such as “What if athletes ate the food they advertised for?”). After viewing, participants who were shown counter-ads were asked for the main point the ad was trying to make in order to test their understanding of the ad. All participants were then shown front-of-package promotions (nutrient claims or sports celebrity endorsements) on unhealthy food products to test their interest in and liking of these products.
Facts and findings
- Teens who understood the main message of the counter-ad correctly, perceived the unhealthy food products shown after this ad (with the nutrient claims or sports celebrity endorsements) as less healthy than those who did not understand the counter-ad or those who saw the ‘regular’ online ad (without messages contesting industry marketing).
- No difference in healthiness evaluation was found between children who misinterpreted the message of the counter-ad and those who did not see the counter-ad, emphasizing the importance of children’s interpretation of the contesting nutrient content claims and sports celebrity endorsements.
- Compared to children who misunderstood the counter-ad, those who did understand:
- were less interested in the front-of-package promotions (nutrient claims or sports celebrity endorsements) on the unhealthy food products shown afterwards;
- were less convinced these front-of-package promotions meant something to them;
- were less likely to want these unhealthy products.
- Children who saw the counter-ad with contesting nutrient claims (e.g., “Unwrap the truth” or “Check the back before you snack”) believed the nutrient content claims on the unhealthy food packages less, given that they understood the main message of the counter-ad.
- Remarkable fact: Two-third of the children (66%) who viewed the online counter-ad understood the point the ad was trying to make, and 6th graders were more likely to understand this than 5th graders.