The Role of Commercial Media Literacy In Obesity Prevention

Persuasion, whether it is in health communication or marketing, is inevitably everywhere. In health communication, persuasion is a core communication strategy used to persuade individuals to adapt healthier lifestyle. Whereas, in marketing, persuasion is used to convince audience to buy a product or service. However, regardless of the context in which persuasion is used, the ultimate goal involves some sort of behavior change and convincing people that something is good for them.  What this implies is that with the power of persuasion the content of the message can persuade one to engage in a certain action, whether it involves healthy or unhealthy behavior.

On the topic of unhealthy behavior, nowhere is persuasive techniques more used to promote unhealthy choices than in television ads for sugar-sweetened soft drinks such as Coca-Cola products. While some Coca-Cola commercials are futile in influencing their audience’s choices, others, like the example presented below, are more likely to be successful. This Coca-Cola commercial is broadcasted in India and has presented a convincing argument for their product. In fact, it is one of the most effective Coca-Cola commercials I have seen in a long time.  Granted, the background music is in Hindi, but I think one can still appreciate the immense persuasive techniques used in the message to grab the target audiences’ attention, i.e., children.

 

By using certain persuasive techniques, the advertisers attempt to, and might I add very skillfully, influence the target audience to not so much remember the message itself as remembering their thoughts in response. Indeed, this Coca-Cola television ad is taking a peripheral route to persuasion, that is, the commercial focuses on cues that are more likely to trigger acceptance without much cognitive thinking. Specifically, through the association technique the product is linked to social problems that have been presented in a positive light, with the goal to create an emotional response, which in turn can come to be associated with the product.  Similarly, by using the symbolism technique, the Coca-Cola beverage is presented as a symbol for a “happier tomorrow,” which is also intended to attract audience to the product. Meanwhile, by using the bandwagon technique the commercial implies that everybody is using the product and those left behind are encouraged to “jump on the bandwagon.”

Now, you must be wondering what is the point of this discussion? Well, the point is such television ads can not only influence sale numbers, but also target audiences nutrition knowledge, food preferences, purchasing requests, and overall diet quality. In fact, in research studies, consumption of soft drinks is documented as an environmental factor that is contributing to childhood obesity. In account of the growing discussion on the association between soft drinks and obesity in health research and media channels, The Coca-Cola Company recently decided to take on a role in tackling obesity by, for example, developing a smaller portion can and by reducing the calories per serving in their product.  Arguably, these efforts in turn will benefit the company (and burden consumers with health consequences) by increasing their image and goodwill.

To this end, the big question now is what can be done to increase awareness of the tactics that are often used to grab consumers’ attention, to establish credibility and trust, and stimulate desire for the product? The answer: media literacy.

Understanding the language of persuasion is a media literacy skill to possess in order to critically analyze and evaluate media messages. Learning about persuasion techniques as early as possible in settings such as elementary schools is a way of empowering children to make better decisions when it comes to health choices.

 

References:

CBCnews. (2013, February 3). Coke’s obesity ad campaign criticized http://www.cbc.ca/news/health/story/2013/02/01/soda-pop-obesity.html

Eagle, L. (2007). Commercial media literacy: What does it do, to whom-does it matters? The Journal of Advertising, 36, 101-110.

James, J., & Kerr, D. (2005). Prevention of childhood obesity by reducing soft drinks. International Journal of Obesity, 29, S54-S57.

Medial Literacy Project. (n.d). The Language of Persuasion. Retrieved from http://medialiteracyproject.org/language-persuasion

Parvanta C, Nelson DE, Parvanta SA, Harner RN. Essentials of Public Health Communication. Mississauga, Ontario: Jones and Bartlett Learning, 2011. ISBN 978‐0‐7637‐7115‐7.

 

-N Sandhu

 

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