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Researchers Fight Junk Food Ads with Teenage Rebellion

Hal Conick

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Teens who deface ads after learning information “exposé-style” found to eat less junk food for three months after study

After decades of junk food marketing—which has contributed to childhood obesity, research finds—the health sector has tried to market healthy food to children with little success.

But a recent study published in Nature Human Behaviour may have a solution: rebellion.

In 2016, researchers went to a Texas middle school and had a group of students read “fact-based, exposé-style” articles on food companies. The articles framed food companies as manipulative marketers who use addictive food for financial gain with little care for public health. In a second group, the researchers gave another group of students the usual material for educating kids on healthy eating. The group exposed to the exposé-style pieces chose fewer sodas and junk food over the next day.

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The researchers set up another study where teens read the exposé-style articles, then did an activity called “Make It True.” In this activity, the students received images of food advertisements on tablets and were asked to “deface” the ads—essentially mark them up with digital graffiti—to make them true.

In this second study, students who did the Make It True activity reduced the amount of soda and junk food they consumed for the next three months. Teenage boys—a notoriously difficult group to convince that junk food is bad, researchers say—consumed 31% less soda and junk food in the three months after the study.

“Food marketing is deliberately designed to create positive emotional associations with junk food, to connect it with feelings of happiness and fun,” according to what Christopher J. Bryan, assistant professor of behavioral science, told UChicago News. “What we’ve done is turn that around on the food marketers by exposing this manipulation to teenagers, triggering their natural strong aversion to being controlled by adults. If we could make more kids aware of that, it might make a real difference.”

Hal Conick is a freelance writer for the AMA’s magazines and e-newsletters. He can be reached at halconick@gmail.com or on Twitter at @HalConick.