Challenging Dogma - Spring 2011

Sunday, May 15, 2011

A Critique Of The Food4life Advertisement And What Can Be Done To Create An Effective Campaign – Kerrie Canavan

Food4Life is an online health campaign that provides information about poor nutrition, empty calories and the diseases the can be acquired from an unhealthy diet. Numerous facts are listed on the website about childhood obesity and references are made to the Surgeon General calling this generation the "sickest generation." Questions are asked of the reader such as "Is there anyone who cares?" and "Are your schools supporting childhood obesity?" Unhealthy food choices are compared to tobacco in light of their addictive properties. Ronald McDonald is even compared to Joe Camel of the Marlborough tobacco company. Minor solutions to obesity and poor diet are offered to readers and the website supports the health food company ForeverGreen which offers healthy alternatives to everyday "junk food" (2). An advertisement used in this campaign is a picture of two hands holding a hamburger with a sign in the hamburger saying "Warning: What you are about to eat is going to kill you." A picture of this advertisement can be seen below in Figure 1.

Figure 1:


Multiple flaws exist in this advertisement, which make it a weak public health campaign. One flaw is that the advertisement assumes people think and act rationally. Secondly, the Psychological Reactance theory is not considered, which greatly applies to their campaign. Finally, the advertisement does not take into account that group dynamics fail to encourage widespread change. All flaws of Food4Life can be addressed to create a stronger advertisement while reaching the main point of promoting healthy eating.

Flaw 1: People Do Not Think Or Act Rationally

A critique of this advertisement is that it assumes people think and act rationally, when in fact people tend to do the opposite. The campaign uses the hamburger with the warning in hopes of convincing the people who see it to rethink their food choices. By telling people the hamburger will kill them it is thought that people will think twice about unhealthy food choices and turn to fruits, vegetables and organic food because people will now associate death with hamburgers and food of that caliber. This is not the case for most viewers of the advertisement. Just because a picture of a hamburger has a warning label does not mean people will no longer eat hamburgers or stop eating processed food all together. Most people will view this picture and continue their eating habits. It has been proven in past public health campaigns that assuming people think and act rationally will most likely lead to a failed try.

D.A.R.E. is a program that is implemented in schools, as young as elementary schools, to raise awareness about drugs to encourage youths to be drug-free. Their mission is to "give kids the life skills they need to avoid involvement with drugs, gangs, and violence" (3). Despite annual spending of 1 to 1.3 billion dollars in 2001, the U.S. Surgeon General placed D.A.R.E. under the category of "Ineffective Programs" (4). The Department of Education has prohibited schools from spending its Safe and Drug-Free Schools money on D.A.R.E. because it is considered ineffective. Despite all of the program's efforts in the 20 years since D.A.R.E. began, studies have consistently shown that D.A.R.E. has no significant effect on students’ use of drugs (4).

A study was conducted by Lynam et at. in 1999 that studied the effects of the D.A.R.E. program after a long-term follow up. There was an initial sample of 230,000 sixth graders collected in the 1887-1988 academic school year in a midwestern metropolitan area. Data was collected both before and after the administration of the D.A.R.E. program. Follow-up questionnaire data was collected from the participants over a 5-year period from sixth to tenth grade. The final sample consisted of 1,002 participants of an average age of 20.1 years. Of the 1,002 participants, those that could be located were sent a letter and consent form requesting participation in follow-up to their participation in D.A.R.E. Individuals who returned the consent forms were mailed a questionnaire asking about their use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana and other illegal drugs. The study found that D.A.R.E. status had no effect on alcohol, cigarette, marijuana or illicit drug use. D.A.R.E. status also had no effect on peer-pressure resistance levels. It was also found that D.A.R.E. status in the sixth grade was negatively related to self-esteem, which indicated that individuals exposed to the D.A.R.E. program in the sixth grade had lower levels of self-esteem ten years later (5).

Through all of the effort and education put forth by the D.A.R.E. program it was proven to be unsuccessful. This proves that although individuals could be given the correct tools and information, they can still choose to participate in the wrong behavior. As can be seen in the Food4Life campaign, even if people are warned that unhealthy eating habits can lead to health issues, they can choose not to listen proving that people do not act or think rationally.

The Health Belief Model can explain the reason why people think and act irrationally. The main assumption of this model is that people are rational and make rational decisions. Behavior is based on weighing the costs and benefits of a certain action. After making the decision based on the benefits and costs, there is intention to perform the behavior. Ultimately, intention leads to behavior (18). In the Food4Life campaign the benefits are based on perceived susceptibility and perceived severity. By creating the main picture to be a familiar hamburger the intention is to show viewers that they are easily susceptible to this type of unhealthy eating because of the common, well known food. The campaign also tries to drive up the perceived severity by telling the audience that eating hamburgers will kill them (19). Based on these two perceptions the campaign hopes to change peoples eating habits because the thought is that by providing a high sense of susceptibility and severity people will want to change their habits. This is not the case because people do not act or think rationally, there is no link between intention and behavior like the model assumes. The Health Belief Model proves that people do not think or act rationally which is an assumption of the Food4Life campaign.

Flaw 2: Psychological Reactance

Psychological Reactance theory is based on the idea that humans have the need to fulfill basic needs of survival and the freedom to choose among different possible behaviors, which will help a human survive. This theory is centered on social influences and how individuals act when their freedom to choose is taken away. Reactance is created when an individual’s freedoms are taken away. When a freedom is taken away that individual will have a desire to reestablish that threatened freedom. One particular way to restore freedom is to take part in the opposite behavior (6). This theory applies to the Food4Life advertisement. The statement in the advertisement is “Warning: What you are about to eat is going to kill you” which urges readers to stay away from foods like the hamburger in the picture. This is a hysterical and outlandish statement that will more often than not be rejected by the public. This advertisement is taking away people’s choice to eat food like a hamburger by threatening them into thinking it will kill them. Upon reading this and seeing that a freedom of choice is being threatened people will most likely react to restore their freedom, in this case they will eat hamburgers or less healthy food.

PhillipMorrisUSA is the largest tobacco company in the world that owns multiple cigarette and smokeless tobacco companies. From 1999 to 2006 they developed the anti-smoking advertisement “Talk: They’ll Listen” implying that if parents talk to their children about not smoking, they will have a huge impact on their decision. The PhillipMorrisUSA company stated “We believe this campaign made a meaningful difference in helping parents understand their influence and encouraging them to talk to their kids about not smoking” and reported that the advertisement had up to 61% of parent respondents who saw the ad talk to their children about not smoking and that the campaign reached 24.4 million parents with children between the ages of 10 and 17 and inspired 14.8 million of those parents to actually confront their kids about the issue (7). This campaign in fact caused kids to want to smoke more. The message of the campaign was that parents should only talk to their children about smoking not that children should not smoke. Developmental psychologists have concluded that teens 15 to17 years old have a tendency to reject authority because they view themselves as independent and self reliant Teens are therefore less likely to rely on their parents for guidance, which the “Talk: They’ll Listen” campaign relies on (8). Their freedom of choosing to or not to smoke was taken away by parents telling their children not to smoke. By feeling threatened teens naturally wanted to restore their freedom and took part in the forbidden behavior, smoking.

A study was conducted in Australia called the “Effect of Televised, Tobacco Company–Funded Smoking Prevention Advertising on Youth Smoking-Related Beliefs, Intentions, and Behavior” by Melanie Wakefield et al. The objective of this study was to relate exposure to televised youth smoking prevention advertisements to the youths’ attitudes towards smoking. One of the televised smoking campaigns used was the “Talk: They’ll Listen” campaign from PhillipMorrisUSA. A total of 103,170 students were included in the study from grades 8 to 12. On average, students were exposed to 4.77 youth-targeted advertisements and 1.13 parent-targeted advertisements in the four-month period. It was found that each additional viewing of an advertisement was associated with a 3% stronger intention to smoke. For each additional advertisement that was targeted to parents there was a lover likelihood of recalling an anti-tobacco campaign, there was a lower perceived harm of smoking, stronger intentions to smoke in the future and a greater likelihood of smoking within the past month (9).

As seen with the anti-smoking ad created by PhillipMorrisUSA, when telling an audience to not partake in a specific behavior it threatens their freedom and causes them to fight back by performing the undesired behavior. In the case of the Food4Life advertisement, the warning label on the hamburger is a way of telling people not to eat hamburgers, which takes away their freedom to make their own decisions pushing them to partake in the activity of unhealthy eating.

Psychological Reactance Theory can help explain why the Food4Life campaign fails. The basis of this theory is that if personal freedoms are threatened, the individual will react to restore that freedom, typically by doing the opposite of what they are told. In the Food4Life campaign the viewer is being told to not eat hamburgers because it will kill them, the freedom to choose what to eat and how much to eat is being threatened. To restore this freedom, individuals will most likely partake in the behavior of eating hamburgers to prove they still have the right to make choices (20). This campaign backfires because viewers will actually do the undesired behavior, which is to eat unhealthy foods.

Flaw 3: Group Dynamics Fail To Encourage Wide Change

Food4Life tries to present an advertisement that has a drastic claim to reach large amounts of people to change their diets. The flaw in this approach is that the advertisement is not targeted. Without a target audience, the campaign hopes that the advertisement will apply to all when in fact not all people can relate to the issue being presented. Making vague blanket statements, especially one that entails fear will lead to an ineffective campaign. Fear is also thought to be a strong motivator, but this can backfire causing people to ignore the message or do the exact opposite of the desired behavior.

There have been various campaigns to make drivers safer by using fear. There was a study done by Kohn et al. in which American students were shown a drunk driving campaign and afterwards asked their thoughts. The students were seen to have thought more positively about drinking and driving after the campaign. A similar study was conducted in which one group of students was shown a frightening film about drunk driving and another group was shown a neutral film. After the films each group of students were put through a driving simulator. The students were seen to drive faster after seeing the fear filled film rather than the neutral film (1). Through these two studies, it is clearly seen that seeing campaigns that are based on fear have little effect when it comes to changing the undesired behavior. The reason why fear has such little effect on behavior change is because the public is so used to seeing campaigns based on fear that the effects no long work. This makes the fear-based campaigns have acute effects on attitudes.

R.F. Soames Job gives various other reasons in his study “Effective and Ineffective Use of Fear in Health Promotion Campaigns.” On reason given for failure is that the presentation is not in an appropriate response-fear offset setting. This means that even though there is a response to the undesired behavior, the pairing of the behavior and the response is incorrect; in this case death is paired with eating a hamburger. This is also known as the punishment paradigm. Also, even if there is a correct response-fear offset setting, the response may be insufficient, for example having a consequence as large as death seems inappropriate. Finally, death seems a very unlikely event for the behavior being explained (10). This also leads to the Optimistic Bias Theory.

Large and undirected blanket statements have a hard time reaching the target audience. In the Food4Life campaign, their message is not directed towards one specific group, but rather at any viewer of the advertisement. Optimistic bias is also known as the mistaken belief that one’s chances of experiencing a negative event are lower than one’s peers. One can also see their chances being higher o a positive event than their peers.

Neil D. Wenistein conducted a study in 1980 to demonstrate optimistic bias called “Unrealistic Optimism about Future Life Events.” In this study Weinstein reported that the majority of college students believed that their chances of negative events such as divorce and having a drinking problem were lower than their peers. But, other positive events such as owning their own home and living past 80 years old were higher than their peers (11). In the case of the Food4Life campaign with the warning label on the hamburger, optimistic bias is relevant. Many individuals that see this advertisement will believe that if they eat a hamburger they will not die because they will believe that the chances of them dying are low. They will therefore believe that this campaign does not apply to them and will ignore the message. Also, healthy individuals or those who are able to consume above the average amount of calories a day due to outstanding circumstances will also ignore the advertisement because they believe it will not apply to them.

This flaw can be explained by the Ecologic Fallacy which states that variables that describe groups do not always describe behaviors of individuals the same way (12). This applies to the Food4Life campaign because the audience is very vague and is therefore geared toward large groups of people. It is then unknown to whom the campaign is trying to reach and the message gets lost. Because of the untargeted message it is hard for specific individuals to accept the message. Aiming a campaign at such a large audience will not allow for the message to be understood by all people and change will fail to occur.

Group dynamics fail to encourage wide spread change, which is why the outrageous statement made by the Food4Life advertisement is a failed public health campaign. Due to the ineffective use of fear, outlandish statement and the role of optimistic bias the public will ignore the message given by the campaign and the message of healthy eating will be lost.

Intervention: Eat Healthy Today for a Stronger Tomorrow

Rather than using blanket statements and fear to promote healthy eating through a simple advertisement, a public health healthy eating campaign would have more effect when being based on advertising theory. The new campaign focused on healthy eating would be through a commercial. The first frame of the commercial would be a little boy at the front door of his house and his mom hands him an apple before he heads off to school. The second frame of the commercial would be an older boy at the front door of his house and his mom puts an apple in his backpack before he heads off to school. The third frame would be an even older boy heading out the front door with sports equipment and his mom tosses him an apple and he heads off to sports practice. The next frame would be an even older boy with football equipment and his mom again tosses him an apple as he heads out the door to his football game. The next frame would be of the famous New York Giants quarterback, Eli Manning, at his house with his mom and he is about to head out for his professional game and his mom says “don’t forget your snack!” and hands her son yet another piece of fruit as he heads out the door dressed in his football game apparel. The last frame of the commercial would be of Eli Manning after his game being lifted up by the team because he made the winning play. The commercial would end by saying “Eat Healthy Today For a Stronger Tomorrow.”

The message of this commercial would be to eat healthy because eating healthy creates stronger and healthier bodies. There are three key components to the Advertising Theory: promise, support and core values. The promise that is being made through this commercial is that eating fruits will enable you to grow up strong and healthy and even be a winning professional athlete. This is an effective promise because it is large and can be grasped by many audiences. Even if the audience does not want to become a professional athlete, the idea can be extrapolated to fit many circumstances to become many things as one grows older. The support of this commercial is seeing the little boy grow up eating fruit every day and eventually becoming a professional athlete. Finally, the commercial touches upon several core values such as family, belonging to a team, youth, attractiveness and work ethic. Through Advertising Theory and creating this approach to the issue of healthy eating, the flaws in the Food4Life campaign are avoided.

Improvement 1: Behavior is Spontaneous and Irrational

The proposed campaign is more effective than the current Food4Life advertisement because it accounts for the fact that people think and act irrationally. There are no facts or statistics that appear in the commercial and there is no program that teaches people to choose healthier foods and avoid junk food. There is simply a promise that by eating healthier foods, one will grow up to be a stronger individual and possibly a famous professional athlete. The idea is put into the minds of the viewers that athletes got to where they are by eating healthy throughout their lives. By putting the message in this context people are not put in the place of having to make a rational decision by analyzing facts, they simply see that a professional athlete ate healthy through their life and that contributed to their success (13).

One of the main premises of the alternative social theories is the fact that they take into account that people behave spontaneously, out of control and in an unplanned manner. Also, behavior is predictably irrational and therefore expectations, ownership, framing and self-control must be taken advantage of in newer interventions. The Broken Windows Theory can best explain the fact that people think and act irrationally, which this new campaign addresses. This theory is based off of norms setting and signaling. The three factors of this theory are social norms and conformity, the presence or lack of monitoring and social signaling. The main idea of the Broken Windows theory is the fact that something only gets done by an individual if has previously been done before them. The behavior begins with a small expression and leads to bigger things and behavior change (14). In the proposed intervention viewers are able to see a little boy group and become a strong a famous athlete while one of the consistent things in his life was eating fruit. This theory helps prove to the viewer that eating fruit can lead to becoming strong and healthy, therefore the healthy behavior was previously demonstrated and seen to succeed. The idea that a small act, such as having a piece of fruit every day, can lead to bigger things, such as becoming a famous athlete, is another factor that can be explained by the Broken Windows theory. Seeing a simple healthy behavior lead to a much larger desirable trait is what the proposed intervention “Eat Healthy Today for a Stronger Tomorrow” promotes and which can be backed up by the Broken Windows theory.

Improvement 2: Observational Learning

This new public health approach addresses psychological reactance because nowhere in this commercial were viewers being told what not to do. There is no freedom that is being threatened for the viewers to react to. There are no negative statements or actions that are being taken to possibly take something away from an individual. Healthy eating is seen in a positive light, which encourages people to choose to eat healthy because it can lead to becoming strong and successful in the future.

This approach will be effective and not cause a reaction from viewers can be explained by the Social Cognitive Theory. The learning-based Social Cognitive theory is composed of three main parts, the individual, the environment and the behavior in question. The three factors are all reciprocal and provide feedback (15). One important concept of this theory is the behavioral capability to perform the behavior. In the commercial a viewer will see a person eat fruit on a daily basis to end up a professional athlete. This is a simple task that can be easily completed. The expectations and expectancies of this behavior are positive because of the healthy actions taken and the desire to be strong, famous and well respected. Observational learning is an important part of the Social Cognitive Theory because the behavior is acquired by watching the actions of others. There is no place in the commercial for negative expressions or threats that would cause the viewer to react in the opposite manner than the desired healthy behavior of proper eating. Simply by watching a person grow up eating healthy and becoming a star is a chance to see the behavior in action. The reinforcement of this healthy behavior is again becoming strong and famous. The emotional response to this approach is allowing the viewer to watch this character grow up and become something desirable that can be linked to healthy eating (16). The absence of a demanding and authoritative message with the allowance of positive observational learning and modeling make the new approach to the problem of unhealthy eating more effective.

Improvement 3: Universal Appeal

Another strength of this commercial is the universal appeal. The original Food4Life campaign was not targeted and used vast blanket statements to reach their audience. The new approach can have meaning to a variety of individuals. People can relate to the boy as he is growing up, there will be an actual person from each age group watching the commercial who can relate to at least one stage of the boys life. Although the commercial does not specifically target one group of people, it has the ability to reach many individuals.

Social Expectations Theory aids in the explanation of why this new public health approach is effective. Social norms are the basis of social expectations and what is seen in the surrounding affects behavior. Social roles have a huge impact on behavior as well. The ability for a campaign to have universal appeal and have the viewer connect to the campaign will enable the viewer to see social roles and how they are portrayed. In the commercial for example, people from various ages will be able to connect to the character at some stage in their life and see how they should be acting. For example, if a small child sees a small child on television eating healthy, they are more likely to accept that action as a social norm. Media also has a huge impact on social expectations. The portrayal of healthy eating habits and what could come of eating healthy will be accepted by viewers and more readily adopted as a social norm (17). The Social Expectations Theory provides explanations as to why universal appeal is effective in a public health campaign.


Food4Life created an advertisement to scare people into eating healthy. Major flaws included the campaigns assumption that people think and act rationally, psychological reactance and assuming that group dynamics would encourage widespread change. All flaws contributed to this campaign having little effect on the audience.

By creating a campaign based off of promise, support and core values the message of healthy eating could be easier spread and adopted. By avoiding the three major flaws put forth by the Food4Life advertisement, the Advertising Theory approach of using a commercial to portray what healthy eating can do is a much stronger public health campaign. Creating a commercial that followed a young boy through his life and eventually becoming a star athlete while eating fruit will allow people to connect to the story and associate eating healthy to being successful.


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