Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Read The Label: Promoting Healthy Food Choices

The Problem 

Obesity has become a huge problem around the world with many people describing it as the ‘New World Syndrome’. Obesity rates have doubled over the past two decades, and according to the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD), 63% of adults in the UK are overweight (OECD, 2017). Obesity and being overweight is linked to significant health problems, such as heart disease, diabetes and certain types of cancer (Andreyeva, Sturm, and Ringel, 2004). Obese patients are also at a higher risk of morbidity and mortality compared to those with ideal body weight (Manson et al., 2012). This can also be problematic to the nation as a whole as it adds to a nation’s overall health care costs. For example, in the U.S., obesity –related health problems raise the U.S annual medical cost per person by $2,741 or by $860.4 billion overall each year (Cawley and Meyerhoefer, 2012).

Since consuming too much food, particularly unhealthy food, is a huge contributor to obesity, changing people’s eating habits is important in reducing obesity rates. As a result, policy-makers have implemented various policies aimed at promoting healthy food choices and/or discouraging unhealthy food choices. For example, there have been ‘fat taxes’ on foods high in sodium, fat and sugar and ‘thin subsidies’ on vegetables and fruits (Kuchler, Tegene, & Harris, 2005). Another policy that has been implemented is making the calorie content of foods more obvious to the consumers through labelling (Downs, Lowenstein, & Wisdom, 2009). Some studies have shown that calorie-content labelling is a successful way in promoting healthy food choices, particularly through the traffic light labelling system (Thorndike et al., 2014). However, some studies have found that such labelling systems have minimal effect, and this is because with the traffic light system consumers are confused and the system is seen as ambiguous to consumers (Leek & Szmigin, 2015).
Therefore, this project focuses on promoting behaviour change through healthy eating behaviours to tackle the problem of obesity, using the traffic light food labelling system and behaviour change techniques that make it clear to consumers on food labels the healthy options in a campaign called ‘Read the Label’.

What we did

In this project, we distributed two posters aimed at promoting healthy eating habits through reading the nutritional label on food items. These posters were put up around the University of Warwick, in places such as the library, campus accommodation notice boards and study spaces. The first poster reads ‘READ THE LABEL’ and shows an image of the exact nutritional label present on food items in the UK, whilst the other poster is a supplementary poster explaining what each of the colour schemes mean. These posters contain a QR Code which links to the NHS page on food nutrition labels which offers a more detailed explanation on the different types of labels uses and their meanings. We also created a Facebook group page which promotes the clear message of reading the label on food products with the same images used in the posters. People who followed the group are also given a change to contribute by offering food product comparisons and post example items with very high or lowfat/sugar/saturate contents when they choose their food products to raise awareness on the matter and help people become more pro-active in their choices of foods.

First Poster distributed

Accompanying Poster

Facebook group page


Elaboration Likelihood Model

The main approach we used was based on the Elaboration-Likelihood Model (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). This model states that there are two routes to persuasion: the central route and the peripheral route. The central route of persuasion is a likely result of the person’s careful consideration of the information at hand, and involves a high level of message elaboration and cognition about the arguments at hand. The peripheral route of persuasion involves the person making simple inferences about the merits of the position in the argument, and are more related to positive and negative cues in the stimulus.

We chose to focus on the peripheral route of persuasion in our advertising as we felt this was most suitable to the message and audience we are trying to reach in our project. This is because we are targeting those who are less likely to read calorific/nutritional information when making choices in purchasing food items, and effectively they wouldn’t really deploy a great amount of cognition or carefully consider nutritional information on packaging when choosing their food items, thus in this sense a central route of persuasion may not be as appropriate. Instead, we used a peripheral route of persuasion, as people are ‘cognitive misers’ who look to reduce mental effort (Stanovich, 2009), and in the process they rely on cognitive heuristics (mental shortcuts) when processing information. This is particularly important in this project as many consumers who ignore food packaging information and choose unhealthy foods, they are usually not motivated to centrally process an issue because they lack an interest in it (Kruglanski, 2012). On track with this line of thinking, the peripheral route of persuasion is likely to be more effective as it should appeal to those even with low motivation on the subject and those who are more likely to take mental shortcuts when processing a message.

As a result, as seen in the posters above, we used a clear message to ‘READ THE LABEL’ in capitals and showed an image of the traffic light colour coded nutritional label scheme that appears on all food items in the UK. This red-amber-green colour scheme remains consistent throughout the posters, from the images to the colour of the text. This is because the effects of colour has been shown in influence emotional responses and behavioural intentions (Alpert and Alpert, 1986). The high importance we have placed on colour in our campaign is an acknowledgment of the understanding that colour has strong emotional loading, and also that colour prompts a swifter response to packaging than either imagery or written work (Tutssel, 2000). Therefore, the intention was that colour would be a peripheral cue under the Elaboration-Likelihood Model to the recipients of the message, such that it will use a heuristic to remind consumers that these exact colours are the colours that will appear on the nutritional information on packaging.  

Simplicity is one of the main themes in our posters. The first poster contains only three words in total, while the second more descriptive poster uses short, snappy phrases and a limited number of words. Again, we felt this was important as it relates to more simple cues so that the targets can make these simple inferences involved in the peripheral route of the Elaboration Likelihood Model. We felt it was also important to balance this simplicity with the quality of the message itself. Past research has shown that consumers are often confused by the colouring system in the nutritional labels on packaging (Leek & Szmigin, 2015). We made sure to provide an explanation for what each of the colours mean in a way that is simple, understandable and effective. In essence, we provided an explanation that would help people completely understand the colour label system whilst still appealing to a peripheral-cue, low-motivation audience. These explanations are presented in a way that is line with all the peripheral techniques used in the font sizes and colour schemes.

Ability is also in important factor of the Elaboration Likelihood Model that we have taken into account when producing the posters for our campaign. The model explains that people need the ability (knowledge, time and mental resources) to fully analyze an argument (Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). Essentially, 'ability' includes the availability of cognitive resources or absence of time pressures or distractions (Fiedler & Garcia, 1987). Distractions like noise in a library can decrease a person's ability to process a message. This is especially important to consider for our campaign because the posters were put up around the University of Warwick where there can be many distractions in different parts of the campus and people are usually occupied or loaded with cognitive busyness and this limits the cognitive resources otherwise available for this task at hand (in this case, assessing our message). Therefore, a message that is simply and easy to read, and not being too detailed can mean they can process our message about reading food labels without diverting the cognitive effort they are putting into their studying or other activities they are taking part in whilst at the university. 


We hope that through the use of these posters and the Facebook group, we can successfully change people’s behaviour in the form of persuading them to pay more attention to the labelling on foods and noticing the nutritional information on the packets. The Elaboration-Likelihood Model is a central theme of our persuasion techniques and we hope that by focusing on this technique in light of past research, we can achieve our goal in fighting obesity and have people lead a healthy and fulfilling lifestyle.


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Thorndike, A. N., Riis, J., Sonnenberg, L. M., & Levy, D. E. (2014). Traffic-light labels and choice architecture: promoting healthy food choices. American journal of preventive medicine46(2), 143-149.

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