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April 30, 2012 | Event Highlights

Design of Effective Obesity Communications: Insights from Consumer Research

Create successful anti-obesity campaigns by employing targeted, not broad, messages.


The Idea

Create successful anti-obesity campaigns by employing targeted, not broad, messages.

The Research

As Americans’ serving portions, appetites, and waist lines grow ever larger, marketing’s role in spurring the obesity problem is increasingly questioned because marketing activities have a direct impact on eating habits. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than one-third of US adults are considered obese, and research shows that overexposure to advertisements featuring high-calorie foods encourages overeating and obesity. For many, the problem starts early: the Federal Communications Commission states that the average American child views more than 40,000 TV commercials in one year, and studies have shown that children who watch TV more than four hours a day are more likely to be overweight than those who watch less TV.

But Professor Donald Lehmann and other experts believe that if marketing has contributed to the obesity problem, it can be used to help consumers make healthier choices, too. Many studies have assessed the impact of different communication approaches — for example, inciting fear of potential health consequences, such as stroke and certain types of cancer, or focusing on positive benefits, like having more energy — on participants’ attitudes and intentions toward food and healthy behaviors.

Working with Professor Punam Keller of Dartmouth, Lehmann used meta-analysis to examine 85 consumer research studies that measured the effectiveness of health communications. The researchers looked for patterns across the studies, focusing specifically on the characteristics that were measured, like health goals, framing, how trusted a source is, and whether messages were tailored or standardized to determine which marketing strategies are most effective in reaching consumers.

Practical Applications

Marketing Managers, Policymakers

You can use this research to help you decide how to tailor health communications or marketing to reach specific groups of consumers. When a standard, broad message is needed, the findings suggest which types of messages and formats will reach as large of an audience as possible.

The researchers found that mass appeals are not as effective as targeted messages in influencing individuals’ intentions to follow health recommendations. Instead, the gender, age, and race of the target audience are critical in designing effective health messages. Their meta-analysis of the previous studies revealed, for example, that women are more likely to respond to messages that play on their likelihood to overeat in response to and in anticipation of emotions, particularly sadness, and urge them to control their eating habits out of a sense of responsibility to others. By contrast, elderly audiences who are typically more interested in prevention may be more influenced by messages that discourage unhealthy behaviors like maintaining a poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle than by messages that encourage healthy eating and exercise.

Regardless of target audience, the most influential ways to increase intent to follow through on any healthy behavior (such as quitting smoking, for instance) are by providing individual stories, using women to communicate the message, and focusing on detection of health problems. Another effective message format did not involve advice from health experts, such as physicians, but showcased emotional stories detailing how and why normal people reached their weight-loss goals. Also, communication about obesity may be more effective when it focuses on the most severe obesity-related health consequences — for example, heart attacks or diabetes.

Donald R. Lehmann is the George E. Warren Professor of Business in the Marketing Division at Columbia Business School.

Read the Research

Punam Keller, Donald Lehmann

"Design of Effective Obesity Communications: Insights from Consumer Research"

View abstract/citation 


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