University of Connecticut Allied Health Sciences Professor Jennifer Harris has conducted research in food studies for years, focusing specifically on how food advertising affects child nutrition.
In her most recent study, she and her team at UConn’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity were interested in food advertising that uses health and wellness messages to market toward kids, Harris said.
“What they’ve done is in many cases they’ve taken a product that isn’t very healthy—such as a McDonald’s Happy Meal—and in the advertising they talk about eating farm fresh food, and showing fruits and vegetables in the ad, but they’re doing this in an ad for a product that isn’t healthy,” Harris said.
The companies never come out and say that their product is healthy, but they use subtle messages that can sway people if they aren’t looking carefully at the nutrition label, Harris said.
The research team brought kids into the lab and separated them into three groups.
“One group saw unhealthy food ads that had messages in them about nutrition or physical activity, another group saw ads for unhealthy food but had fun messages that kids like but don’t have anything to do with health or nutrition and then another group of kids saw ads for food that was actually healthy,” Harris said.
The ads were for products not sold in the United States so that the kids wouldn’t have any preconceptions about the products they were shown.
The results coincided with Harris’s hypotheses, as the children were inclined to believe that the unhealthy food advertised with healthy subjects was healthier than it actually was, creating something similar to a Health Halo Effect—a phenomenon in which depiction of certain foods makes people perceive the product as healthy, often resulting in an increased consumption of the product, according to the Guardian.
“Then we also followed up with some questions about exercise and nutrition and asked them to rate some healthy and unhealthy products about how healthy they were. And the messages didn’t have any effects on that. In research we can’t say that this proves that there’s no effect,” Harris said.
The main reason Harris is conducting this research is to inform policymakers and advocates who are trying to get these companies to stop using falsified messages of health and fitness that incline kids to believe unhealthy food is good for them.
Harris said that she’s seen some improvement in how companies advertise. She said she has seen fewer food advertisements on kids’ channels like Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, and a greater awareness in parents about what the companies are doing.
“Policymakers are starting to look at local laws to help marketing. For example, a few towns in California have recently passed laws that fast food restaurants can’t automatically provide a soda with children’s meals. They have to provide healthier options with kids’ meals,” Harris said.
“It’s important to think about the bigger message the advertising is doing and how it’s convincing people to buy products that taste great but aren’t so good for you,” Harris said.Professor