Challenging Dogma - Fall 2011

Monday, December 19, 2011

“Pouring on the Pounds”, New York City’s Anti-Soda Educational Campaign, A Critique Based on Social and Behavioral Science Theories –Vijeta Limbekar

Introduction – The “Pouring on the Pounds” Campaign Explained
Over the past few years, New York City has been promoting an anti-soda/sugary drink campaign. The New York City health department launched its latest installment of their media education campaign, “Pouring on the Pounds” in 2011. The intention of this campaign is to encourage New Yorkers to avoid sugary beverages and to quench their thirst with healthier alternatives, such as water, seltzer or low fat milk. The main objective of this campaign is to fight the obesity epidemic that plagues the city of New York. The ads aim to remind New Yorkers about how sugary drinks can cause obesity, which leads to chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, stroke, and arthritis, and even some forms of cancer. The health department claims that a majority of New York City adults are now obese or overweight as are 4 in 10 elementary school children. The NYC health department states that the number one biggest contributing factor to this rising obesity rate is the consumption of sugar in sweetened beverages.
The components of the “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign consist of many educational ads, posters, and videos. The main goal of this campaign is to educate New Yorker’s on the amount of sugar, and fat that is consumed by drinking popular sugary beverages such as soda, sweetened coffees, teas and sports drinks. In order to convey this message, the health department posted a video on YouTube, entitled, “Pouring on the Pounds”. In this thirty second video a young man, is seen opening a 20 ounce soda can that is filled with globular orange fat, that he proceeds to pour into his mouth. While there is no dialogue or speech in the video, there is background music, and text that states, “Drinking one can of soda a day, can make you 10 pounds fatter”. The end of the video shows ten pounds of graphic fat that is being thrown onto a plate, which is intended to depict the amount of fat one would accumulate over the course of a year. The New York City Health Department website explains this ad further, adding that a 20-ounce can of soda packs 250 calories, and more than 16 teaspoons of sugar. The makers of this video intend for their audience to be disgusted and shocked by learning this information about sugary beverages. Other similar ads in this campaign series highlight things such as a man eating 50 sugar packets equal to the amount of sugar in soda, entitled, “Man Eating Sugar”. In order to get a clear visual of this video, a link to this video and others can be viewed at the end of this document, in Table 1.
Although the goal and intention of the, “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign is admirable, this is most likely the only credit it will receive. This educational ad campaign is flawed when analyzed according to many social and behavioral science principles and theories. The models themselves must be correctly applied to an issue in order to successfully change behavior. Unfortunately this campaign misapplies three social and heavier science principles and theories. These theories are the health belief model, psychological reactance theory, and communication theory. The following discussion will highlight and identify exactly how this campaign inappropriately uses these theories.

The Health Belief Model
The New York City health department was misusing the health belief model for this intervention. The health belief model is a health behavior change model which is determined by personal beliefs or perceptions about disease and behavior. This theory is based on four main constructs, perceived seriousness, perceived susceptibility, perceived benefits, and perceived barriers. Therefore the successful application of this theory would be to change the perception of how New Yorkers view sugary beverages and how the consumption of it affects their perceptions. This is a flawed application of the health belief model, because it implies the notion that people will improve if they simply know better.
The problem this campaign focuses on is why the people of New York City are consuming sugary beverages. The answer to this problem can be found by looking back at the ad. In ad answers this question by making the assumption that people drink soda, because they lack the knowledge about how bad soda is for one’s health. The makers of this ad were using the Health Belief Model for this intervention. In this model they believe that if people only knew what the negative health consequences of drinking soda were, then they would not engage in this behavior. However, this is an incorrect model to be using for this situation. The problem of people drinking soda and other sugary beverages is not just an issue of lack of information, however a deeper seated one.
It is important to research the exact causes of a behavior. It will only be through this analysis that one can correctly identify the root cause of a situation. In this circumstance it is important to pinpoint why people are consuming sugary beverages. It is flawed to assume that people are only drinking high sugar drinks because they do not know about its dangers. Research shows that one of the main reasons that people consume sweet beverages is due to emotional eating and drinking as a result of stress craving. Stress increases the level of cortisol production in the body and cortisol in return creates cravings for salty and sweet foods and beverages. People also are strongly influenced by the environment that is around them. Social norms of drinking high sugar beverages have become widely popularized through advertisements from many soda, coffee shop, and sports drink companies. Alternatively, the ads should address the underlying assumption as to why people are drinking sugary beverages. Clearly, it is not a lack of information, but a deeper emotional connection that people have towards consuming high sugar beverages. An effective campaign would identify these issues and address them correctly in order to successfully change a health behavior.
Psychological Reactance Theory
The New York health department inaccurately utilizes the principles of psychological reactance in their ad anti-sugary beverage campaign against the fight for sugary beverages. Psychological reactance theory is an adverse emotional reaction in response to a regulation or a threat on freedom and autonomy. This is a reaction that is common especially when individuals feel obligated to adopt a particular opinion or engage in a specific behavior. The reactance describes the emotional state of the person whose freedom is threatened, and thus rejects the message. The ad, “Pouring on the Pounds”, causes its viewers or consumers to exhibit elements of psychological reactance theory, thereby rejecting the message of the ad to avoid sugary beverages.
It is important to look at the effects of psychological reactance in relation to consumer behavior. The consumers in this circumstance are New York City inhabitants that will be viewing the “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign. Psychological reactance is usually encountered by consumers when there is a threat to their freedom. The implication of this ad shows a threat to the consumer’s freedom in choice of a beverage. Thus this ignites the emotional state of psychological reactance. This elicits behaviors that are intended to restore their autonomy. Therefore, since consumers feel like their freedom in choice of a beverage is being taken away, and are told to avoid sugary beverages, consumers are most likely to engage in this very behavior. In fact, these ad campaigns might even cause a rise in the consumption of sugary beverages instead of a decline in rates.
This ad campaign which threatens the freedom of beverage choice can be compared to the alcohol prohibition movement. During the 1920s, the United States had enlisted in the major reform movement that prohibited the consumption and sale of alcoholic beverages. People at this time were exhibiting psychological reactance, and the rates of alcohol consumption increased drastically in comparison to pre-prohibition days. Similarly, a backlash on the ban of sugary beverages might elicit the same responses, causing more harm than good.
Alternatively, if the New York health department truly wanted to simulate the behavior of refraining from sugary drinks, then its ad should avoid psychological reactance from its consumers. This can be done by empowering their consumers, giving them the freedom and autonomy of choice of their own beverages. The ad should evoke feelings of authorization in the consumer to take charge of their own selections. A majority of the videos currently only show a few drink options at the very end of the ad, which is only a mere five seconds out of a thirty second to two minute video. Instead of neglecting this freedom of choice in alternatives, the ads should make it a point to highlight all the other healthy options they want their consumers to engage in.
Communication Theory
When trying to convey a message, it becomes extremely important to communicate your idea as clearly as possible, with all the right implications. The way that a message is conveyed across to an audience can be explained using communication theory. Communication theory is the production and exchange of information through the meaningful use of signs and symbols. Communication scholar, George Gerbner described communication theory as having three main branches. The first branch includes semantics, which is the study of signs and symbols and how they reflect various social contexts. The second branch of theory describes media effects, such as how the message is explained using tools from the fields of social psychology. The final branch is message production, or the study of the organization of communication through social institutions. The following will discuss how the “Pouring on the Pounds “ campaign fails to recognize the branches of communication theory and thus misuses it to create an ineffective ad.
The first mistake that the makers’ of the ad campaign committed was disobeying the semantics involved in communicating their message. In the ad, undoubtedly, the most highlighted symbol is of the soda can. The soda can is depicted as a disgusting, unhealthy, life threatening object that should be viewed as poison and is to be avoided at all costs. However, this is inconsistent with how the media and society is conditioned to view this product. The media for decades has viewed soda as an object of celebration, made popular through Pepsi and Coca-Cola ads, as a comfort food, and a source of joy. If an ad suddenly changes this symbol from a positive one to negative object, then backlash is to be expected. This ad failed to recognize the positive association that society already has formed with its star symbol. Alternatively, the ad should have put a positive spin on healthier alternatives, instead of trying to destroy the reputation of a popular drink.
The most important element of persuasion and making a persuasive appeal is not found in the content of the ad itself. However, the most influential aspect of a message is the messenger. This idea comes from the second branch of communication theory, which describes media effects. Studies have shown that people are more likely to listen to a message if it is being conveyed by an individual that one can relate to, likes, and is attractive. One of the most visible inherent flaws of the ad is in the choice of a messenger. The messenger is a young male, who is below average looking, and dresses poorly. This messenger does not relate to the society of New York City, also known as the fashion capitol of the world, where beauty and looks prevail. Thus, people are unlikely to listen to this message if it is being conveyed by someone who they do not find attractive, or can relate to. Instead, an attractive, young messenger should have been chosen. The ads should contain someone that New York City citizens can relate to, or even better if the message was coming from a popular New York City celebrity. In this fashion, more people would take the ad seriously.
Finally, the branch of using communication through social institutions should have been implemented. The goal of this ad is to encourage adults and children alike to stop drinking sugary beverages. However, even though the ad targets a wide demographic of people, the scope of the ads does not. The ad makers inaccurately made one type of ad that was supposed to appeal to a wide variety of age ranges. This is a major flaw in the type of ad created. The reasons that children and teenagers drink high sugar beverages are much different than those for adults. Therefore, the ads should have identified these differences and made ads according to the social stance of that demographic. Consider this, if children are drinking sports drinks that are high in sugar because this is a social norm in their social environment, than an ad should address this issue. Alternatively, adults may be drinking coffee and tea that are high in fat and sugars, because of their social norms at the work place. It is clear that the motivation for drinking these beverages among the various age ranges is very different. The ad makers need to identify these variances and make a public health campaign accordingly.
While it is admirable that the city of New York has taken on the goal of reducing the consumption of sugary beverages, the means by which they try to attain this goal is inherently flawed. The New York City health department launched the, “Pouring on the Pounds” public health educational campaign in hopes to reduce high sugar beverage consumption. This campaign contains print ads and videos. However, the ads fail to convey a successful message across to their audience for various reasons. The main reason that this campaign remains unsuccessful is due to a lack of compliance with social and behavioral science theories. The campaign incorrectly uses the health belief model, psychological reactance theory, and communication theory.

Intervention Introduction: The Sexy Mind, Body and Water Campaign
The main idea of the New York City’s health department to reduce the intake of sugary beverages for the city is an admirable one. This behavior change is even reasonably achievable, considering it does not involve a large commitment or behavior change on behalf of the consumer. However the delivery of the public health media campaign was flawed. The main reason this campaign was unsuccessful was due to the inappropriate use of social and behavioral science theories. The following intervention proposal aims to correct this issue, in order to create a successful anti-sugary drink campaign. The name of this campaign will be, The Sexy Mind, Body and Water Campaign. This campaign will correctly use social and behavioral science techniques of positive framing, psychological reactance theory, and communication theory to create an effective message to its audience.
The Promise
The key to any successful campaign is in making a promise to the viewer. The promise of The Sexy Mind, Body and Water campaign is that drinking water will allow one to lead a happier, more fulfilling life, which includes a positive self-image. The promise also will include a visualization aspect. It will allow consumers to be able to visualize themselves as being healthier, and physically sexier from drinking more water, as promised in the ads. It will harp on the individual’s deepest aspirations and core values of being wanted, and feeling loved by oneself and others, by engaging in healthy behaviors. This underlying promise is going to sell the behavior of drinking more water.
Positive Use of Framing
Framing is a perspective and method of packaging information. In the, “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign, soda was framed to be a negative health choice and the behavior of drinking was also framed to be unfavorable. This was putting a negative frame on a behavior, which is caused dissent among its viewers. Studies have suggested that positive framing may be more persuasive than negative framing. Accordingly, this new intervention, would take advantage of this theory of positive framing. The Sexy Mind, Body and Water campaign’s intention is to put a positive frame on drinking water. The purpose of the campaign would be to encourage its viewers to participate in the positive behavior of drinking water and turn away from the negativity associated with drinking soda. The campaign would also sell the effective message of the positive health benefits that drinking water would have on one’s body, such as a lower BMI, healthy weight, clear skin, and a nice complexion, just to name a few. The goal of this campaign is to positively encourage people to engage in the activity of drinking water.
Taking Advantage of the Psychological Reactance Theory
The “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign violated the provisions of psychological reactance theory by taking freedom away from its viewers. The objective of that campaign was to limit the types of beverages that the consumer should intake. It highlighted a wide variety of high sugar beverages, such as various types of soda, coffees, teas, juices and sports drinks. However, it only named a limited number of healthy alternatives, such as water, seltzer and low-fat milk. This ad highlights the fact that there are far more drinks that should be avoided and only identifies three drinks that are acceptable. This is perceived as an extreme threat on one’s freedom, because it no longer gives people autonomy to decide what to drink, but instead limits only to three choices. The main issue with this is that it spends a lot of time talking about what not to drink, instead of highlighting the alternative choices that people can drink.
In order to avoid and solve this problem, this new intervention campaign, The Sexy Mind, Body and Water ad, will give freedom back in the hands of the consumer. The campaign will give autonomy of choice to its viewers by spending the majority of the time in its video telling people all the various things they can do with water to make it healthy. The underlying point is that it will highlight all the choices that people can make with water. This can specifically be done with showing products that are okay to drink with water, such as sugarless natural flavoring, herbal tea with antioxidants and by infusing water with fresh vegetables and fruits. Consumers will be encouraged to drink water and participate in this movement when more healthy choices are provided.
How to Effectively Communicate a Message: Use of Communication Theory
The effective application of communication theory can elicit desired behaviors. Communication theory relies on three main branches and when used correctly can effectively convey a desired message that you want. The three main branches of communication theory that will be employed for The Sexy Mind, Body and Water campaign are the use of symbols, media effects and social institutions.
The main symbol that this campaign will utilize is of water, and its universal appeal. Water will be the symbol of youth, vitality, sex appeal, and a healthy mind and body. This is the promise that the ad will be selling to its viewers. The symbol therefore will evoke positive, desirable images and feelings from the viewer. In order to achieve the promise of this ad, consumers will engage in the behavior of drinking more water.
Finally, the second and third branch of communication theory will be used harmoniously to effectively convey a message. The media effects relate to the messenger of the ad and the social institutions will be reflected upon by the messenger. The one, who conveys the message, must be appealing, attractive, and someone that the audience can relate to and trust. Therefore, for this ad, there will be attractive models and celebrity endorsers that will appear in the ad. Research has shown that a message is taken more favorably if delivered by an attractive messenger. There will be various different messengers to appeal to all the different demographics present in the target audience. For children and youth, the messenger will be sports figures, such as New York Knicks athletes, and popular TV actresses from sitcoms such as Gossip Girl. This way, the messenger will appeal to youth males and females. In the same fashion popular celebrities will be chosen for adults as well, such as New York actress Sarah Jessica Parker and actor George Clooney. In doing this, the message will be relatable and has the highest probability of getting across to the target audiences.
The Sexy Mind, Body and Water campaign’s goal is to promote the behavior of drinking more water in hopes of achieving a healthier lifestyle. This is an alternative approach to the, “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign created by the New York City health department. This campaign successfully delivers a promise that appeal to the core values of its viewers. The promise states that by drinking more water, one will be able to lead a fulfilling life with a positive self-image. This campaign also effectively uses the theories of positive framing, psychological reactance, and communication theory. The implementation of such a theory would bring about a positive change in the fight against high sugar beverages.

Table 1.
Title of Ad/Video Hyperlink to Video
Pouring on the Pounds!
Man Eating Sugar
Do You Drink 93 Sugar Packets a Day?

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