New York City’s, “Are You Pouring On The Pounds?” Campaign: A Critique based On Psychological Reactance Theory- Tricia Pellizzi
Obesity is a growing concern in the United States. In the United States 68 percent of adults age 20 and older are overweight or obese (BMI greater than 25) (2). In response to the growing rate of obesity in the United States, the New York Department of Health and Mental Hygiene launched an ad in the summer of 2009 targeted at the source of many of the extra calories we consumed on a daily basis: sugary beverages. The department claims that, “On average, Americans now consume 200 to 300 more calories each day than we did 30 years ago. Nearly half of these extra calories come from sugar-sweetened drinks.” (3). The ad recognizes the link between the consumption of sugary beverages and the increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, stroke, arthritis and cancer (2,3) and warns New Yorkers to cut back, using the tag line; “ Don’t drink yourself fat, cut back on the sugary drinking and go with water, seltzer or low fat milk instead” (3 ). Although the ad has a legitimate source and objective, the ad’s graphic may divert viewer’s eyes before they read the health message. The graphic depicts a hand emptying a soda bottle into a glass; however, it is not soda pouring out of the bottle, it’s fat. Many New Yorkers are opposed to this message, rejecting the “unpleasant image” and “nanny state” the ad represents (8). These powerful emotional reactions can lead to the ultimate backfiring of the Health Departments campaign. Although sugary beverages are a source of many empty calories and are consumed in greater quantities than ever before and therefore are a contributing factor to the growing rates of obesity in the United States (3), the ad’s use of negative, highly directive, overtly persuasive language and improper use of social marketing techniques creates a potential for negative labeling of soda drinkers, and produces high psychological reactance, which can lead to a ‘Boomerang effect’.
Negative Framing and the Potential for Negative Labeling
Labeling is a social process; the label is often not inherent in the behavior that receives it (24). Labeling Theory suggests identity and behavior of certain individuals, usually those seen as deviating from perceived social norms, may be determined or influenced by terms used to describe these individuals. This leads to stereotyping and self-filling prophecy (1). Due to the fact that the ad states that an increasing number of New Yorkers, 2 million according to Health Department researchers, drink sugary beverages daily (3), this ad has the potential to create a stereotype that people who drink soda, or sweetened beverages regularly are ‘fat’, creating a stigma for this group of the population. Research has found that weight related stigmas occur on a variety of levels, including, but not limited to, family, friends, and even health professions, (22) this has great potential to negatively affect emotional functioning as well as provoke negative coping behaviors, which may include overeating or indulging. By negatively effecting emotional functioning, the targeting individual may decrease levels of self-esteem and other psychological stressors that may decrease confidence in their ability to make healthy decisions. This can perpetuate the cycle and create a self-fulfilling prophecy among these individuals (22). There are positive associations between psychological stress and excess body fat accumulations and experiences of unfair treatments lead to increases in abdominal obesity. (24). Clearly an advertisement that intends to positively influence health behaviors should avoid labeling and discrimination of groups to decrease the psychological stress of stigmas that may reinforce negative health behaviors.
Psychological Reactance: Potential for Adverse Reactions/Boomerang Effects
According to the Psychological Reactants Theory, emotions are reactions to threats of personal freedom, which in this case, is the freedom to drink sugary beverages. These emotional reactions often lead to behaviors that restore the freedom perceived to be threatened. Prior to the display of negative reactance the individual must feel the freedom to hold an attitude or belief, or engage in a behavior; in this case sugar sweetened beverages (in moderation or otherwise) is an example of exercising such a freedom. Determinants of the ability to exercise a freedom include; physical ability, wealth, or political regulations that may restrict the exercises of this activity (18,19,20). In this case, anyone can engage in this behavior; however, not everyone who engages in the activity is overweight; many people can enjoy these drinks in moderation without experiencing weight gain. Due to this attempt to manipulate personal freedom by advising against this behavior “individuals may engage in a threatened behavior simply to demonstrate their prerogative to do so” (20).
The attempt of the individual to restore the threatened freedom often results in acting out against recommendations. An example of this can be found in a study investigating the consequences of warnings by Stewart and Martin in 1994, which found that, “[although] empirical research suggests that warning messages increase consumer awareness of potential product hazards…Warnings may produce behavior that is exactly the opposite of that intended by the placement of the warning.” (12) The reaction to threats and acting out in attempts to restore to freedom can also be referred to as ‘The Boomerang Effect,’ which ultimately causes the opposite of the Health Departments intended effect. Not all warnings produce such negative effects; “…effective warnings result in improved awareness of warning information, more accurate perceptions of risk, and enhanced understanding of risk avoidance mechanisms….effective warnings [also] result in the measurable reduction of hazardous behavior.” (11).
According to the Psychological Reactance Theory, “People will react against attempts to control their behavior and eliminate their freedom of choice” (9). The freedom of choice deals with specific, discrete behavioral and attitudinal freedoms that people act upon in everyday life (9). The freedom to choose which beverages you consume on a day-to-day basis definitely fits the mold for exercise of daily behavioral freedom. This attempt to control New Yorkers behavior and thus their freedom, by warning that consuming these beverages will cause you to gain weight is a threat to their freedom; ads that attempt to persuade people to act in a certain way may in fact act in direct opposition in order to exercise their autonomy (9, 26). This theory supports the view that trying to influence peoples’ behaviors by advising against certain choices in this manner may not produce the desired effect of having New Yorkers decrease their consumption of sugary drinks and substitute those beverages with water, seltzer or low fat milk. In a study regarding consumer behavior and psychological reactance, researchers found that, “…the degree that an advertisement …is seen as intending to persuade, there should be reactance arousal and accompanying decrease influence”(9). People don’t like to receive unwanted advice about how they should behave. Warning against unhealthy products may only make them want the product more (15,26).
Adolescents seem to be a population that have an increased sensitivity to psychological reactants (13) and because the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene ad is warning against soda and other sweetened beverages, which of course is popular among adolescents, the message may not be well received and even cause and increase in soda consumption as a result. DeTurck and Goldhaber conducted an experiment in 1991 with a “NO DIVING” warning sign to adolescents. Not only did the researchers find that, “controlling messages such as warning signs with increasing levels of psychological reactance, and as a result, warning signs are less effective with high school students than with middle school students;” is very clearly demonstrated by adolescence in response to warning messages. But also that “…[it] seemed to have a ‘boomerang effect’-caused the opposite than the intended effect” (13).
Due to the profound effect that psychological reactance can have on a variety of populations, Janis Hovland et al., in an article on communication and persuasion, accounted for six possible reasons for high psychological reactance or boomerang effect to a particular message; three of which apply to New York’s ad. The first being when the sender of the message uses counter norm communication the public may react against it; by describing the norm in order to argue against it the sender adds to the receivers knowledge of the norm and heighten conformity. This may be of particular significance with the “Are you pouring on the pounds?” advertisement because the campaign recognizes the daily high consumption of soda and sugar sweetened beverages in New York, and due to this increase the health department needs to intervene. But what the ad could be reinforcing to the public is that everyone drinks soda daily, but we want you to go against societal norms and stop. The second being when, after being influenced by the sender, the receiver becomes sharply aware that he is deviating from the norm, the audience my act in direct opposition to the desired effect. The third being that the boomerang effect may occur when the message produces feelings of aggression or unalleviated emotional arousal (17). This last point may play a significant role in the public reactions to this ad campaign. Viewing the ad or the video may produce many emotions; first and foremost it produces a strong feeling of disgust, which only elevates as the commercial continues, it also may produce anger or frustration in reaction in reaction to being told not to drink soda, or sugar sweetened beverages.
The magnitude of the public’s reaction will vary depending on two important factors. One being how important the consumption of these beverages are to each individual; “ the more important the freedom, the more reactance is generated due to person or impersonal threats” (9), and the other being the mere fact that your freedom to choose these beverages is being threatened, “ the reactance response often entails an overreaction whereby threatened behaviors or attitudes come to be prized more than before.” (9).
Ineffective Use of social marketing techniques
Research has shown that public health practitioners that utilize basic techniques of marketing principles to “sell” their product of health have found much success. Marketing techniques emphasize the importance of selling a product for which there is high demand, “ too often public health practitioners determine the benefits that policy makers and the public ought to want and then attempt to sell these benefits when there is low, or no, demand” (27). New York’s “Are you pouring on the pounds” campaign is attempting to indirectly ‘sell’ weight loss through reducing soda/sugar sweetened beverage consumption. The problem is that the focus of that ad is on the association between soda and ‘fat,’ not the benefits that this reduction can ultimately cause; weight loss, which is an appealing concept for consumers.
Recommendations of the use of marketing techniques in public health campaigns suggest six key objectives to meet when ‘packaging’ a product, New York’s ad violated four of the six objectives. The first violation involved the presentation of evoking visual images that appeal to the target audiences’ core values, rather than appealing to the core values of the population, the image on the New York’s ad evokes strong negative emotions of disgust and aggression (8). The ad also fails to develop a catch phrase that appeals to core values, the catch phrases in this ad a quite negative and potentially stigmatizing. It also does not suggest appropriate metaphors that evoke themes and images that appeal to the core values, Lastly the ad fails to distribute responsibility to society [environment, policy etc], not strictly on the individual. (27)
If we analyze New York’s advertising campaign in terms of the ‘brand’ they are creating for themselves, they identify with the consumer by informing them that their favorite beverage is making them fat. The brand instead should be something the audience can relate and aspire to and should relate back to their core values (27). The problem is that the advertisement is focusing the negative end result of drinking to much soda, rather than the benefits that one receives by cutting down their consumption such as weight control and autonomy, “promise, large promise is the soul of an advertisement (28).
Framing of health issues in a social marketing campaign also influence the outcome of behavior change and overall reaction to health messages; ‘gain-framed’ messages were found to be more effective in promoting prevention than ‘loss-framed’ messages (7). This ad uses a negative frame/ ‘loss-frame,’ insinuating that soda drinkers are ‘fat’, this may both produce a negative or opposite reaction to the desired out come of the campaign as well as create or enforce a stigma that segregates ‘soda drinkers’ from ‘non soda drinkers’ in society (6). In addition, James Price Dillard and Lijiang Shen in their article, On the nature of reactance and its role in persuasive health communication, found that,”…intense, forceful, or dogmatic language may increase the magnitude of reactance (10). The negative angle New York decided to take with this ad, both in terms of language, framing and images clearly increase the psychological reactance of views and therefore increase the potential for a ‘boomerang effect.’
Some theorists believe that campaigns such as this one focus too much attention on targeting individual behavior and not enough on influencing the environment to facilitate the desired behavior change. It is also important for social marketers to anticipate unintended effects of their marketing techniques that would produce adverse reactions (6) The New York City Department of Health & Mental Hygiene did not acknowledge the adverse reactions that having revolting images, targeted at soda and sports drink consumers would have on their ability change their behavior without any help from environmental changes. These changes could include increase availability of non-sweetened beverages, decrease in cost of these alternatives (especially in low income areas), or initiatives on the companies behalf to decrease the amount of sugar in their beverages to facilitate the desired behavior change.
New Intervention: Use Positive Framing and Social Marketing to Reduce Psychological Reactance and Labeling Effects
Due to the flawed design of New York’s “Are you pouring on the pounds?” campaign, alterations can be made to increase the effectiveness of the ad and achieve the desired behavior change of reduce the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages. By addressing the issues of labeling, psychological reactance and social marketing techniques, the ad will produce a more favorable reaction from the public and will be more effective at achieving their goal of reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
Proper use of positive framing techniques and language are useful in decreasing the possibility of negative reactions to health messages and societal stigmas that may be contained within health messages; these alterations will lead to more effective health warnings. A study on the effects of warning and information labels on consumption of full fat reduced fat and no fat products found a similar distinction between reactance and behavior, “people don’t mind being informed about the potentially harmful risk associated with products [but] they don’t like to receive unwanted advice about how they should behave. Warning people about unhealthy products may only make them want the products more” (14). Jensen and Collins explain that offensive, disgusting or fearful advertisements may produce an overreaction of negative reactance in the public due to a phenomenon call “Third Party effect”. This effect is described as the likelihood of people to have an exaggerated complaint or a negative reaction to an advertisement because they believe that other people will be offended (21). This reaction may be due to disgusting images or endorsement of stereotypes in the population. In this case, the disgusting images and stigmatizing negative language presented in both the poster and video presentations of this advertisement, the public may exaggerate their negative reaction because they believe others will be more offended than they are. By removing the stigmatizing language and gruesome images, stigmas can be avoided and messages can be well received.
A positively framed message emphasizes a brands’ advantage or the potential gains to consumers resulting from the purchase or use of the brand or ‘product’, positively framed messages tend to elicit more desirable responses than negatively framed messages (29). Positive messages engage viewers to process the information. (23). Research shows that those who actively process information in an advertisement tend to respond more favorably because active processing involves an acknowledgement of goals or a conscious awareness of the issue or topic (4). Although most social media contains both negative and positive forces within their messages, affecting both simultaneously, increasing positive force and decreasing negative force, should sharply increase compliance, if the if the negative is reduced so much that the positive outweighs it, there is an even greater likelihood the individual will comply with the recommendation (30) This is essential with NY’s ad because the health department is asking the public to reduce or eliminate the consumption of a product that has clearly gained more popularity over the years. “Harvard school of public health recommends that public service messages designed to deter certain behaviors should avoid message executions that evoke negative emotions and rely instead on the upbeat tactics used by advertisers of consumer products (31).
The helpful or interpersonally appealing qualities of the communication will work in the opposite direction of negative reactance. If the freedom (or importance of freedom) were at a low level, the credible and attractive features of the communication would very likely create a net of positive influence (9). Due to the fact that freedom to choose is so crucial in the production of adverse reactance and “Highly explicit, directive language is often viewed as controlling and may contribute to a sense of helpless dependence rather than confident independence” (5), using language which covertly persuasive and ultimately reminds the viewer of their ability to make decisions (5) is an important aspect in decreasing the occurrence of psychological reactance due to overtly persuasive, directive language in many health campaigns. Using language that is concrete tends to be viewed as having expertise and trustworthiness. The new message should also contain “Low-controlling autonomy supportive language appears to be principally associated with positive affective outcomes related to decreased reactance, such as perceptions of fairness, decreased anger, and more favorable judgments of source sociability. (5). An example of a possible headline that fits these new criteria might resemble, “Wanna cut calories? Decreasing soda consumption can save up to 300 calories a day! The choice is yours.”
Another to achieve a type of processing that will engage the attention of our target audience; social marketers have the most success when they identify a solution to a problem the audience is experiencing and offer a solution or a benefit they will value. Appealing to the audience is key and many health professionals struggle with marketing their recommendations in this way (6). One way to make the message more appealing is to increase the attractiveness of the communicator, liking the person delivering the message increases the attention of the audience. Perhaps having a fitness celebrity state the message on the ad, the audience may be more open to receive the message. The elements needed to accomplish this are in place, no one wants to be labeled as ‘fat’ or deal with the co-morbidities of being overweight or obese, and in terms of getting in shape, people tend to want and most results with the least amount of effort. If the lessons learned about the effects of psychological reactance, the elements of positive framing that encourage active processing and avoid stigmatization of groups are applied to New York’s advertisement, the ad will decrease the boomerang effect and overall negative view of the ad which may interfere with the ads effectiveness. Due to the fact that people will react against attempts to control their behavior and eliminate their freedom of choice,”(9) the ad would frame the information to leave the power to choose with the viewer. In addition, appropriate research needs to be done to identify what New Yorkers want, think, feel and do regarding the target behavior (4); drinking sugar-sweetened beverages.
Many argue that too much time is spent attempting to persuade people to change their behaviors and not enough time on developing affordable, accessible products that allow people to solve their problems and realize the aspirations that matter most in their lives and to modify the environment to make it easier and more enticing to adopt the healthy behavior (6). Assuming that weight control is new York is concerned with, and information regarding weight management is what will entice the public, and the health departments wants to attempt change by focusing on decreasing soda consumption, they might want to create regulations or legislation that supports this initiative for example removing soda in school, or making the alternative options (so fat milk, water, and seltzer) more affordable, or easily accessible especially in areas with high soda consumption and low socio-economic status, such as some areas on Brooklyn (3). The health department might want to consider legislative action or at least collaboration with store owners to help with the initiative to help support the effort, perhaps reorganizing their beverage layout to display the preferred beverages and move sweetened beverages to the back or have promotional pricing. Perhaps using the effects of product placement to draw attention to non-sweetened beverages may be another avenue to pursue; although in lower income areas, price will be a more motivating factor to purchase these items.
The incorporation of these techniques will greatly increase the reaction to the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s attempt to decrease soda consumption. Their current campaign made use of three techniques that increase the likelihood of adverse reactions rather than behavior change, namely the use of labeling soda/sugar sweetened beverage drinkers as fat, using images and language that produced high reactance, increasing the likelihood of boomerang effects, and finally the improper use of advertising techniques leads to the decrease acceptance for this campaign. By altering the way the information in the ad is presented, the reaction to this ad can be quite positive.
Decreasing consumption of sugar sweetened beverages to remove a large proportion of empty calories from ones diet is beneficial recommendation for the New York City Department Of Health and Mental Hygiene to deliver to its’ residents; however, the advertisements used to send this message may do more harm than good. The negative language and disgusting visuals not only set the stage for labeling and stigmatization but the improper use of social marketing techniques produce such high psychological reactance that the message can actually produce ‘Boomerang effects’. A more successful means of delivering this health message would be to utilize key marketing objectives, which reframe the campaign to appeal to the public core values and motivate the viewer to make healthier beverage choices. The language of the ad should be direct, to maintain credibility of the source, positive, to decrease negative reactance and avoid stigmas and stereotyping, and indirectly persuasive, allowing the viewer to still exercise their own decision-making capabilities. Incorporating these principles into the advertisement will increase the probability of acceptance and behavior change among New Yorkers.
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