Back in March, 2011, I was honored to be chosen as one of the winners of a Slate magazine anti-childhood-obesity crowd-sourcing contest. My submission, entitled “Legislate, Educate and Inoculate to Create Food-Savvy Kids,” argued that we need to fight the problem on three fronts: legislation to curb the food industry’s advertising to children; widespread nutrition and cooking education; and what I called “inoculation” – i.e., showing kids how Big Food cynically manipulates them into choosing fast food and packaged foods over more healthful options, entirely for profit and at the expense of their own health.
I’m obviously not a social scientist, and the “inoculation” idea came from little more than my own experience as a mom of two kids, as well as looking at analogous approaches in the world of anti-tobacco messaging. So it was with great interest that I read in yesterday’s New York Times about a new study which seems to confirm the effectiveness of this idea in the realm of healthy eating.
The study split almost 500 eighth graders into two groups. The first group read an article about healthy eating and the benefits of choosing fresh foods, while the second read an exposé on the ways in which food companies manipulate the addictiveness of their foods and use misleading health claims in their marketing. The next day, when all of the students were asked to choose snacks for a long-planned class celebration, teens in the second group chose fewer junk food items than the control group:
They were 11 percentage points more likely to forgo at least one unhealthy snack, like Oreos, Cheetos or Doritos, in favor of fruit, baby carrots or trail mix, and seven percentage points more likely to choose water over Coca-Cola, Sprite or Hi-C.
That might seem like a small difference, but if sustained it would translate to the loss of about a pound of body fat every six to eight weeks, the researchers said — a public health triumph.
The study’s lead researchers, Christopher Bryan at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and David Yeager at the University of Texas at Austin, told the Times: “We cast the executives behind food marketing as controlling adult authority figures, and framed the avoidance of junk food as a way to rebel against their control.” Another researcher speaking to the Times added, “What’s really exciting about this study and other work like it is that if you can appeal to kids’ sense of wanting to not be duped, you empower them to take a stand.”
It’s a brilliant idea to harness teens’ naturally rebellious nature for good, and that was the focus of Times writer Amanda Ripley, author of an acclaimed, teen-focused book, The Smartest Kids in the World. But while teens might be the age group most primed to want to rebel against food industry manipulation, I suspect this phenomenon isn’t unique to them. Adults don’t like feeling taken advantage of either, nor do little kids, once they catch on to the ways in which they’re being played for profit.
This same premise is what motivated me back in 2013 to create a free rhyming video, “Mr. Zee’s Apple Factory,” designed to encourage healthy eating among kids in pre-K through elementary school. The video tells the story of Mr. Zee, a manufacturer who cynically hooks a town on his processed foods – until a boy named Cooper, the son of a fruit store owner, stands up to him.
The video is about as low-budget as it can be; I couldn’t afford a professional artist so I drew the pictures myself, and I enlisted friends, family and neighbors to provide the voices. But many elementary school teachers have emailed to tell me that even the littlest kids do respond to this message, with some of them actually clapping and cheering when the girl at the end of the story bravely bites into a fresh apple. 🙂
As regular TLT readers know, I part ways with some of my colleagues in supporting all kinds of advertising to promote kids’ consumption of fruits and vegetables over processed foods, including the use of celebrities and children’s television characters. But maybe fruit and vegetable growers ought to consider a new tack: promoting their products via ads that simultaneously unmask, perhaps in a mocking/humorous way, the shenanigans of the processed food industry? Just a thought. . . .
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