Seriously, What is a Calorie?: Using Incentive Appeals and Old-School Techniques to Give Value to the Intangible Nutrition Fact

Fear appeals seldom work in behavior change because, quite frankly, no one knows what it feels like to die. So even when we’re presented with tame fear appeals, like cigarette warning labels that read “may cause lung cancer” or nutrition facts listing high sodium or calorie counts, we shrug it off because we can’t “see” their effects on our weakened lungs or struggling heart (like we could see, say, the results of a broken arm or tattoo). The idea of cigarette tar or a calorie poses no threat to me because I can’t even fathom what it is in its basic form—much less what it may do to my body.

So what if, instead of threatening my life, the appeal threatened my quality of life by actually showing me the threat’s impact on the things that I deem most important? Suddenly, our “out of sight, out of mind” mantra shifts to “I’m still not convinced this thing will kill me in the future, but I understand that it will definitely infringe on my freedom/time/appearance/friends’ approval today!”

Check out the new research from Johns Hopkins University that builds upon this idea:

  • For 6 weeks, researchers posted signs near soda refrigerators in Baltimore stores that told purchasers it would take 50 minutes of running or 5 miles of walking to burn off the 250 calories in the soda they were about to buy.
  • Their report shows a decrease in the number of sodas purchased and an increase in the purchase of smaller sodas (click to see a great infographic of this experiment).
  • The results? Forty percent of those interviewed who noticed the signs said the information changed their decision about what they would buy.
  • Even better? The purchasing effects lasted 6 weeks after the signs were taken down.

But knowledge-increasing and behavior-nudging tools, like the researchers’ posters, are not new, you say. After all, app developers have bottled this idea before and applied it to some of our favorite mobile app downloads, showing us how poor diet decisions will eat away at our daily share of calories and how many Empire State Buildings we have “climbed” when we opt to use the stairs.

Infographic of comparison between calorie information and real-world impact of calories consumed.

The problem? Pulling out a phone and scanning the bar code of a soda to see what impact it will have on my life is an added barrier for those for whom “getting fit” is not top-of-mind and who would buy the drink without thinking twice. For these people, who are literally holding the information-laden nutrition facts in their hands, information is not power. “Calorie” does not mean anything, so its threat falls flat.

For that reason, I really like the researchers’ use, here, of “old-school” techniques (posters, for crying out loud!) to nudge buyers at the point-of-purchase. The purchase power is still in their hands and they still can choose to ignore the sign without taking additional actions, but now “calorie” has more meaning. Nearly everyone buying the soda will see the poster and be reminded how far and time-consuming a 5-mile walk is—finally giving that calorie a face and value. Their soda-purchasing behaviors may not change but, who knows, maybe it will influence their potato-chip intake or TV time or miles walked later. At least now we’ve presented them with information that actually may be relevant to their day-to-day life instead of continuing to list that intangible, not-so-threatening calorie count and expecting it to do all the work.

What do calories “look” like to you? What nudges you to make healthier decisions? Have you seen fear appeals or “old-school” message techniques with positive outcomes?

By Katy Capers

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