Can counter-advertising reduce pre-adolescent children's susceptibility to front-of-package promotions on unhealthy foods?: Experimental research
This study aimed to test whether counter-advertisements (i.e. messages contesting industry marketing) make pre-adolescent children less susceptible to the influence of food promotions. Since children have lower media literacy levels due to their immature cognitive abilities, specific research questions explored were: (1) whether the effectiveness of counter-ads is contingent on children having understood them; and (2) whether counter-ads may be detrimental when they are misinterpreted. A between-subjects experimental design using a web-based methodology was employed. 1351 grade 5-6 students (mean age 11 years) from schools located in metropolitan Melbourne, Australia participated. Participants were randomly shown an animated web banner advertisement (counter-ad challenging front-of-package promotion or control ad) and a pair of food packages from the same product category comprising an unhealthy product featuring a front-of-package promotion (nutrient content claim or sports celebrity endorsement) and a healthier control pack without a front-of-package promotion. Responses to the assigned advertisement, choice of product (healthy versusunhealthy) and ratings of the unhealthy product and front-of-package promotion on various nutritional and image-related attributes were recorded for each child. Sixty-six percent of children who viewed a counter-ad understood its main message. These children rated the front-of-package promotion as less believable and rated the unhealthy product bearing the front-of-package promotion as less healthy compared to the control group. However, children who misunderstood the counter-ad rated the unhealthy product bearing a front-of-package promotion as more healthy and rated the front-of-package promotion more favourably than those who correctly understood the counter-ad. Counter-advertising may have unintended consequences when misunderstood. If public health organizations or government pursue counter-advertising as a strategy to reduce the negative influence of unhealthy food marketing among children, caution is needed in designing counter-ads to guard against possible contradictory effects. © 2014 Elsevier Ltd.