A New Way to Persuade Kids to Drink More Water and Less Soda
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Marketing Sep 10, 2018

A New Way to Persuade Kids to Drink More Water and Less Soda

Getting children to make healthy choices is tricky—and the wrong message can backfire.

Kids decide whether to buy water or soda.

Yevgenia Nayberg

Based on the research of

Szu-chi Huang

Daniella Kupor

Michal Maimaran

Andrea Weihrauch

Parents and schools have devised all sorts of strategies to convince kids to eat and drink healthier. Some try lecturing children about the dangers of junk food; others offer rewards for finishing their vegetables or try to present healthy food in an enticing way. But given that many kids still consume a lot of sugary snacks and sodas, it’s clear that adults haven’t come up with a perfect solution.

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In a recent col­lab­o­ra­tion with UNICEF, Michal Maimaran and col­leagues tried a dif­fer­ent approach. To encour­age chil­dren to drink more water, they installed posters in schools in Pana­ma that linked drink­ing water to var­i­ous goals, such as being healthy, smart, or pop­u­lar. When the asso­ci­a­tion made sense — the link to health, for exam­ple — kids bought more bot­tled water at school than they did before the posters went up.

But the kids didn’t fall for just any argu­ment to drink water. If the posters pro­mot­ed a link that did not make sense — sug­gest­ing, for instance, that water con­sump­tion was asso­ci­at­ed with mak­ing friends — water sales slight­ly dropped. 

We see sug­ges­tive evi­dence that this can back­fire,” says Maimaran, a research asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of mar­ket­ing at Kellogg. 

Over­all, how­ev­er, the results sug­gest that sub­tle attempts to per­suade chil­dren can have a pro­found effect on their actu­al pur­chase behav­ior,” Maimaran says. And because the study was per­formed in a nat­ur­al set­ting rather than a lab, she adds, it tells us that this can work in the real world.” 

Sub­tle Persuasion 

Get­ting kids to eat and drink health­i­er is a major chal­lenge. And the stakes are high. 

Unhealthy eat­ing habits increase the risk of prob­lems such as obe­si­ty down the road. The long-term con­se­quences are very impor­tant” for chil­dren, Maimaran says. The ear­li­er they start to have a health­i­er lifestyle, the high­er their chances of con­tin­u­ing a health­i­er lifestyle.”

The results of var­i­ous strate­gies to pro­mote such habits have been mixed. 

For instance, in an ear­li­er study by Maimaran and a col­league, when four- to five-year-old chil­dren heard sto­ries sug­gest­ing that a cer­tain food was healthy or could make them smart, they ate less of that food than kids who heard the food was tasty. How­ev­er, oth­er exper­i­ments have been more encour­ag­ing. Anoth­er research team report­ed in 2013 that preschool­ers who learned about nutri­tion con­cepts ate more veg­eta­bles at snack time. Oth­er researchers have found that putting pho­tos of veg­eta­bles on ele­men­tary school lunch trays encour­ages health­i­er eating.

Sub­tle attempts to per­suade chil­dren can have a pro­found effect on their actu­al pur­chase behavior.” 

For this study, Maimaran col­lab­o­rat­ed with Szu-chi Huang of the Stan­ford Grad­u­ate School of Busi­ness, Daniel­la Kupor of Boston University’s Que­strom School of Busi­ness, and Andrea Weihrauch of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Ams­ter­dam. The team part­nered with UNICEF, which was inter­est­ed in increas­ing the amount of water chil­dren drink. 

The researchers decid­ed to try link­ing water con­sump­tion with dif­fer­ent goals that kids might want to achieve. They designed four posters, each of which showed the mes­sage Drink Water” and an illus­tra­tion of two chil­dren hold­ing bot­tles of water. One poster also said Be Healthy” and includ­ed pic­tures of fruits and veg­eta­bles; a sec­ond said Learn Faster” and showed num­bers and a book; a third said Make Friends,” with pic­tures of oth­er kids; and the fourth had no addi­tion­al message. 

The assump­tion was that health-relat­ed goals were strong­ly con­nect­ed to drink­ing water, intel­li­gence was mod­er­ate­ly con­nect­ed, and pop­u­lar­i­ty was weak­ly con­nect­ed. By test­ing a range of goals, the team could find out if link­ing water con­sump­tion to any goal would encour­age the behav­ior — even if the asso­ci­a­tion didn’t make much sense — or if the effect depend­ed on the strength of the link. 

A Mes­sage That Increas­es the Amount of Water Chil­dren Drink

Field assis­tants in Pana­ma put up one ver­sion of the poster at each of four pri­vate ele­men­tary schools. At each school, the team placed 240 posters in loca­tions such as class­rooms, hall­ways, and the cafe­te­ria; some were post­ed near kiosks where kids could buy bot­tles of water, as well as oth­er drinks such as sodas, and food. Kiosk oper­a­tors report­ed water-bot­tle sales to the team for one month before the posters were installed, one month dur­ing which the posters were up, and one month after the posters were tak­en down. 

In the school with Be Healthy” posters, bot­tled-water sales increased dur­ing the month the posters were in place from an aver­age of 25 to 33 per day, the team found. In the school with Learn Faster” posters, sales stayed rough­ly the same. And in the Make Friends” school, sales decreased from 78 to 63 bot­tles per day, though the change was not sta­tis­ti­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant. When the researchers con­trolled for tem­per­a­ture and humid­i­ty, the same trends still emerged. 

The results sug­gest that kids are per­suad­ed by mes­sages that rely on a nat­ur­al asso­ci­a­tion between the action and goal, such as between being healthy and water, Maimaran says. But if the asso­ci­a­tion between the action and the goal is not strong enough, such as between being smart and water, kids are not per­suad­ed. And if the link doesn’t make much sense, such as the link between hav­ing friends and water, the strat­e­gy might back­fire — per­haps because the chil­dren think they are being deceived. 

Sur­pris­ing­ly, bot­tled-water sales dropped in the school where the poster had no addi­tion­al mes­sage beyond instruct­ing them to drink water, from an aver­age of 13 to 6 per day. Maimaran spec­u­lates this is because kids may dis­like being told what to do with­out a reason. 

Mak­ing Long-Term Changes in Healthy Choices 

Once the Be Healthy” posters were removed, bot­tled-water sales at that school dropped back to their pre­vi­ous lev­els. So researchers will need to explore oth­er meth­ods to change kids’ long-term habits. Leav­ing the posters up indef­i­nite­ly is unlike­ly to be effec­tive. At some point, kids would just stop notic­ing them,” Maimaran says. 

Instead, per­haps schools could com­bine the posters with oth­er strate­gies such as class­room instruc­tion or tar­get younger kids to estab­lish habits ear­li­er. Maimaran’s team is now inves­ti­gat­ing oth­er inter­ven­tions in ele­men­tary schools and preschools to increase children’s con­sump­tion of healthy food. 

And what about telling kids about the dan­gers of con­sum­ing too much soda and junk food? 

Maimaran is skep­ti­cal of this tech­nique. It might work with old­er kids who can under­stand the risks of eat­ing those foods. But among young chil­dren, who may not know much about these prod­ucts yet, such mes­sages could cre­ate the oppo­site effect of curios­i­ty and attraction.

Featured Faculty

Michal Maimaran

Research Associate Professor and Clinical Associate Professor of Marketing

About the Writer

Roberta Kwok is a freelance science writer based near Seattle.

About the Research

Huang, Szu-chi, Daniella Kupor, Michal Maimaran, and Andrea Weihrauch. Forthcoming. “Leveraging Means–Goal Associations to Boost Children’s Water Consumption: Persuasion in a Four-School Three-Month Field Experiment.” Journal of the Association for Consumer Research.

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