Convincing the public not to engage in harmful drinking: a more challenging task than you might think

A new study published today in BMC Public Health looks at the most effective means of combating industry marketing techniques on unhealthy drinking habits.

The beverage industry has done such a good job in convincing the public that sugary and alcoholic beverages are something they want to purchase and drink, it’s almost impossible with facts and arguments to convince them otherwise.

It’s not your imagination; populations around the world are getting fatter and sicker every year. Diabetes rates are skyrocketing, childhood obesity is at an all-time high, and waistlines are growing.

While it can be argued that multiple factors are responsible for this change in human health, it is undeniable that sugary, carbonated and alcoholic drinks contribute to a less healthy population.

How exactly has the beverage industry pulled off this feat?

One word: marketing

While there has been a multitude of studies conducted on how to use marketing campaigns to convince the public to do or buy something, in a unique study recently conducted by Dr. Melanie Wakefield and colleagues, the researchers looked at not what convinces people to drink, but what strategies convince the public most on why they should not add these toxic – but highly popular – liquids to their diet.

Dr. Wakefield et al. set out to determine what would be most effective, from a public advocacy position, in convincing consumers to support taxation and sport sponsorship bans of these chemical drinks.

This study was designed in two waves; in the first wave, study participants were placed in different categories of exposure to health advocacy information. The different exposures were as follows: control messages (basic information of the public health issues associated with these drinks); standard policy arguments alone; standard policy arguments with an inoculation message; standard policy arguments with a narrative message; and standard policy arguments with an inoculation message and a narrative message.

An inoculation message is where the data presenter, by either audio or video means, will warn the listeners of what the other industry might say to counter their message, and why their message is wrong. A narrative message is defined as a story or experience from a person who has a personal connection to the policy, and is telling it from a personal standpoint.

After the five groups were exposed to these messages, they completed questionnaires on what they thought of them, and how likely there were to influence their behavior and support of a public policy that made it more difficult for beverage companies to market their product.

In the second wave of the study, approximately two weeks later, these same participants completed the questionnaires after they had been exposed to the brand marketing of the beverage companies, to see if they could be swayed after they had been educated by the public policy advocate.

While this experimental setup is certainly interesting in terms of its impact on the drink industry, one can also see how this study can shed light on how to convince and educate the public on other pressing public matters, where a private industry has well established and deep rooted marketing campaigns in place to financially benefit corporations and combat any messages of resistance.

Our results suggest that advocacy messages incorporating inoculation or narrative components can increase public resilience to subsequent anti-policy messages. Across two policy domains (sugary drinks and alcohol) and tactics (taxation and sport sponsorship bans), inoculation and narrative messages delivered separately were successful in countering the persuasive impact of opposing arguments from the sugary drink and alcohol industry as measured by participants’ level of support for the health policy being addressed in the message and the strength of their anti-industry beliefs after exposure to the anti-policy message.

The study found that there was limited evidence of immediate effects of the inoculation and narrative messages compared to the control, with some suggestion that the inoculation messages counter the persuasive messages of the industry.

Overall, policy support and anti-industry beliefs were lower following exposure to the industry anti-policy messages at the second wave.

While there were a number of limitations to this study, it’s not hard to reconcile these results with what is occurring in the real world, and the ever increasing influence large corporations have on buying, eating, drinking, and behavior.

As the study cautions, important message effects can be overlooked when focused solely on the immediate effects of exposure to advocacy messages.

On a positive note, not all of the results from this study were bleak; there is some evidence that dissemination of advocacy messages can work, though more research is needed.

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