RCT: Gross Pics on Beverage Labels Deter Purchases

The Blood of MedusaPLOS Medicine has quite a good new study of gross pictures on beverage labels to deter purchases of sugary drinks. It is a randomized, controlled study which proves quite convincingly that gross pictures deter purchases of beverages when they appear prominently on labels. Mission accomplished.

Our only quibble would be with the meaning these researchers say we should attach to the study:

“Implementation of pictorial warning label policies could be an effective strategy for reducing sugary drink purchases and sugary drink–related health outcomes.”

This study is all about purchasing behavior. It tells us nothing about health outcomes. Nothing whatsoever.

A Careful Design

As a study of gross pictures on beverage labels and their effect on purchases this study is really good. Its randomized, controlled design uses a naturalistic setting to determine whether disgusting pictures on labels deter parents from purchasing sugary beverages for their kids.

The findings are very persuasive. These pictures (examples below) caused 38 percent fewer parents to buy a sugary drink.

The Tobacco Warnings Model

These researchers say that their thinking about beverage warnings evolve from the Tobacco Warnings Model. However, significant differences distinguish tobacco products from food and beverage products. At birth, humans nourish themselves with a sweet liquid – milk. Food and beverages are essential for sustaining life. We seek out things that taste sweet because sweet foods and beverages have nourished us for countless generations.

Tobacco products are infinitely more harmful. Safe smoking is not an option. The goal of tobacco control is for people to stop.

People have many options for what to eat and drink. Some studies have suggested that when populations drink less of sweetened beverages, they may drink more of alcoholic beverages.

Also, it’s worth noting – as the authors of this study do – that telling people tasty beverages are disgusting can have unintended consequences for health. Disordered eating is a concern, as is the promotion of health stigma.

Health Outcomes vs Purchase Outcomes

U.S. Trends in Sugar Consumption and ObesityThe crusade to persuade everyone to consume less sugar in food and beverages is quite successful. Consumption of caloric sweeteners is back down to levels not seen since the 1970s. But this has not led to a reduction in obesity. In fact, obesity has climbed relentlessly while sugar consumption plummeted during the last two decades.

So if the goal is to exert paternalistic control over beverage choices, gross pictures are a big winner. If the goal is to produce better health outcomes, there’s no evidence for that. Only speculation.

Click here for the new study in PLOS Medicine and here for the news release from the authors.

The Blood of Medusa, painting by Fernand Khnopff / WikiArt

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February 2, 2022