Anti-smoking campaigns inspire new counter-marketing for sugary ‘fruit’ drinks

02 November 2021
3 min read

Public health messages deigned to reduce parent’s purchasing of sugary fruit drinks for children, inspired by anti-smoking campaigns, have been successful, according to a study by researchers at the University of Washington and the University of Pennsylvania.

According to media outlet Eureka Alert, “the study set out to assess the effect of culturally tailored counter-marketing messages on drink choices, similar to stark anti-smoking campaigns, and involved more than 1,600 Latinx parents who participated by joining Facebook groups.”

Dr James Krieger, lead author and clinical professor of health systems and population health in the UW School of Public Health, explained that they focused “on this demographic because Latinx children have a high rate of sugary drink consumption, and the beverage industry intentionally targets the Latinx community”.

He continued, “The negative health effects associated with the consumption of sugary drinks — such as tooth decay or, later in life, diabetes — are disproportionately affecting this community.

“We want these and other kids to be able to avoid developing strong taste preferences for a product that’s ultimately going to harm them.”

The study, which was published recently in the American Journal of Public Health, was designed by researchers consulting with focus groups involving Latinx parents from across the country. They wanted to see things from their perspective, which included uncovering their perceptions of how marketing works, how they think about what they are buying for their children, as well as how to culturally tailor messages that would resonate in their community. 

James expands, “They know that targeted marketing happens all the time in the digital era, but what really got them was the fact that they were given deceptive information that they felt was leading them to make unhealthy choices on behalf of their kids.”

The marketing the parents were being exposed, which often contain claims about vitamin C and other nutrients, led them to believe that fruit drinks and healthy.

With the information from the focus groups, the researchers set to work to design the counter-marketing graphics, which even called out specific brands.

James discusses the process, “We looked at anti-tobacco messages and the words and types of images they used. We wanted messages that would appeal to folks on an emotional level as well as a cognitive one, because that’s what research shows drives people to make choices.”

The next step in the study involved testing out the counter-marketing material. To do so, the researchers enrolled 1,628 Latinx parents — predominantly female and from lower-income households — to participate in Facebook groups for six weeks to study the impact of counter-messages on those parents’ beverage choices and fruit drink perceptions. 

Then, the parents were divided into three groups. There were two ‘intervention’ groups, who received the newly designed counter-messages, with one of the two also receiving water promotion messages. The third group, the control group, saw safety messages about car seats.

The marketing was then tested through the use of a simulated online store that offered fruit drinks, soda, water, milk or 100 per cent fruit juice. Parents from all three groups chose a drink for their kids and received money they could use to buy the drink in a real store. 

The research revealed that the parents in the first two groups, the ones that saw the counter-marketing for the fruit drinks and water promotion messages, were less likely to buy a fruit drink and instead were more likely to buy water. In fact, parents in the fruit drink counter-marketing group decreased their virtual purchases of these drinks by 31 per cent compared to the control group, however parents in the group exposed to the fruit drink counter-marketing and the water promotion messages decreased their sales by 43 per cent.

Based on those choices, the authors estimated that children in the combination group consumed 22 per cent less added sugar than the average for children two- to five-years-old. In exit surveys, the authors wrote that “the parents in both intervention groups were also ‘significantly’ less likely to trust fruit drink brands.”

Co-authors include Taehoon Kwon, who worked on the study while a UW graduate student in economics; Rudy Ruiz, of Interlex, a multicultural advocacy marketing agency in San Antonio; Lina Pinero Walkinshaw, a clinical instructor in the UW School of Public Health; and Jiali Yan and Christina Roberto at the University of Pennsylvania. This research was funded by the Healthy Eating Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; and the Arcora Foundation, the foundation of Delta Dental of Washington.

The researchers said the study is the first to “demonstrate the efficacy of counter-messages delivered solely via social media as well as the first to specifically target sweetened beverage consumption among young children.” As a result of this study, the researchers have also created a social media counter-marketing toolkit for use by anyone to campaign against fruit drink purchases for children.

As executive director of Healthy Food America and with an extensive background in the development and evaluation of community-based chronic disease prevention programs, including a stint with Public Health-Seattle & King County, James hopes the study will be used widely to curb consumption of sugary fruit drinks.