Health and lifestyle campaigns miss the target

February 20, 2012 - 06:10

Campaigns designed to make us live healthier lives assume that we don’t live healthily because we don’t know any better. But they miss the target as other lifestyle factors play a role.

A study of Danish-Pakistani families shows that campaigns mistakenly assume that unhealthy families don’t know what is healthy. (Photo: Colourbox)

Most of us know which foods are healthy and that we must use less energy so we can save the climate. We are nevertheless bombarded with campaigns telling us how to live what is considered to be a better life, yet the effects of the campaigns are limited.

“Here in Denmark, the average person knows what is healthy or unhealthy and gets nothing from these campaigns,” says Bente Halkier, a professor at Roskilde University’s Department of Communication, Business and Information Technologies, who has studied campaigns like these.

"The people behind the campaigns assume that the target groups think like they do, that the only reason for their unhealthy or climate-hostile lifestyle is that they don’t know any better. But that’s totally incorrect – the campaigns underrate people.”

Unaware of the ‘right’ behaviour

Campaigns typically use the so-called deficit model, which says people act as they do because they lack information about the ‘right’ behaviour.

“The campaigners believe the target groups will use the knowledge in the campaigns to change their lives,” says the researcher. “This is a quite surprising attitude, as the campaigners seem not to realise that we do have the information but choose to ignore the campaign’s preaching for other reasons.”

The people behind the campaigns assume that the target groups think like they do, that the only reason for their unhealthy or climate-hostile lifestyle is that they don’t know any better. But that’s totally incorrect – the campaigns underrate people.
Professor Bente Halkier

She also sees a standstill in target group philosophy for campaigns designed to change behaviour.

“Campaigns of this type still address people as passive recipients of information that is good for them,” she says. “The campaigners don’t see the recipients as adapting the information to their everyday lives. The target group philosophy for these campaigns is obsolete.”

Halkier has not studied why these campaigners use an obsolete target group philosophy – but she believes it may be because the campaigners are people who are passionate about healthy living or the climate, but do not understand that other people do not share the same passion.

“They regard what they are passionate about as so important that they can’t imagine that other people may find them of less importance,” she says.

Everyday life important

One error the campaigners make is not taking the recipients’ everyday lives into consideration – they see the recipients as individuals in total control of their own worlds, which is far from correct.

The campaigners believe the target groups will use the knowledge in the campaigns to change their lives. This is a quite surprising attitude, as the campaigners seem not to realise that we do have the information but choose to ignore the campaign’s preaching for other reasons.
Professor Bente Halkier

“It’s a mistake to believe you can change a whole family’s behaviour even if you manage to change a single family member’s lifestyle,” she says. “At dinner, for example, the wife may want fish, the husband wants meat and the children won’t eat vegetables. Our behaviour depends greatly on context and how we negotiate situations like this.”

Four recipient groups

Together with Iben Jensen, an associate professor at the same department, Halkier observed and interviewed Danish-Pakistani families – who easily develop diabetes because of their food habits – about a healthy food campaign. These families are just as conscious about healthy and unhealthy foods as everyone else, and their behaviour is also determined by varying contexts.

This research has enabled Halkier to describe four model recipient groups for health-related campaigns that we will all belong to at various times during our lives:

1. The proactive-committed are up to date in their health-related knowledge and run their everyday lives on health ideals.

2. The pragmatic are completely aware of what is healthy, but only use this knowledge when it suits their daily lives.

Facts

The researchers studied the food habits of 19 people, all with an increased risk of developing type 2 diabetes, in seven Danish-Pakistani families.

Individual, group and family interviews about eating everyday food, preparing healthy food, and relations to other people in their networks, revealed the eating habits of these people and how they look on healthy, nutritious food as part of their daily lives.

3. The ambivalent have a critical attitude to healthy food: they perceive that what tastes good is looked on as unhealthy, and following dietary advice is problematic in their daily lives.

4. The non-prioritisers are also completely aware of what is healthy, but choose to give other factors, such as taste, favourite dishes or family relations, a higher priority.

“Everyone can move back and forth between the various groups as our behaviour is strongly determined by context,” says Halkier. “These four groups, which exist in the narrow context of Danish-Pakistani families, can also be recognised in our studies of health-and climate-related campaigns generally.”

She hopes these results can be used to replace the deficit model in campaigns. By using the descriptions of the four groups, campaigns can be tailor-made to each group’s situation campaigns.

--------------------------------------------------

Read this article in Danish at videnskab.dk

Country
Translated by
Michael de Laine

Today's selected stories