Photo: VLG (iStock)

Because it’s adults who create anti-smoking, safe-sex, and nutrition campaigns for teens, their ideas can sometimes come off as, well, misdirected. If you sat through D.A.R.E. presentations in school, you probably have some thoughts on the program’s effectiveness. Researchers from The University Of Chicago Booth School Of Business recently published a study that might inject some much-needed life into the conversation: They found middle-school students were less likely to buy junk food if they thought they were being rebellious by doing so. The study indicates that tapping into teens’ desire to rebel could be a powerful way to help them make healthy decisions.

The study, published in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, was conducted in 2016 with the participation of eight-grade students in a Texas middle school. The students were split into two groups, each given a different type of message about healthy eating. One group—the control—was presented a traditional curriculum about healthy eating from existing health programs. The other group was shown an exposĂ©-style article about large food companies’ strategies for luring and tricking customers into purchasing junk food. According to a press release from Chicago Booth, “the article framed the corporations as manipulative marketers trying to hook consumers on addictive junk food for financial gain.”

Researchers found the students who read the exposĂ© were subsequently less likely to purchase junk food from the school cafeteria, choosing water over sodas and passing over unhealthy snacks. In a second study conducted with a new group of eight-graders, the researchers presented the “exposĂ©â€ group with a follow-up interactive exercise that was designed to reinforce food companies’ manipulative tactics. After completing the exercise, those students reduced their junk-food purchases and sustained that behavior over a three-month period. Boys in that group especially showed a change in behavior, reducing unhealthy food purchases by 31% in that time compared to the control group. Effects on girls’ behavior were less conclusive.

“Appealing to teenagers’ natural impulse to ‘stick it to the man’ and their developmentally heightened sense of fairness may finally provide a way for the public-health community to compete against dramatically-better-funded junk food marketers,” the release states.

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That’s largely the tactic behind Truth, an anti-smoking campaign aimed at kids and teens. Its ads and website take a deliberately non-moralistic tone, stating “We’re not here to criticize your choices, or tell you not to smoke. 
 We’ve always been about exposing Big Tobacco’s lies and manipulation. And while they keep adapting their tactics, we keep it real.” If a similar approach could be taken to junk food, the Chicago Booth study suggests, it could be more effective than touting the long-term health benefits of fruits and veggies.