The right message, delivered by a reliable source, can move the needle when it comes to public health concerns like the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.
That’s one of the lessons learned by the Nicholson Foundation from a year-long project that engaged dozens of community organizations in Passaic County. The groups participated in a social media campaign to encourage New Jersey families to choose water, instead of soda or fruit drink mixes like Hawaiian Punch and Kool-Aid.
The outreach appears to have succeeded to some degree. In Passaic County — the geographic focus of the campaign — per capita sales of soda dropped 7.6 percent and fruit juice declined nearly 8 percent, according to an analysis released in late December. Consumption also went down statewide — 4.3 percent for juice drinks and 1.7 percent for sodas, perhaps a reflection of a growing number of online conversations about the dangers of sugary drinks.
Breaking the sugar habit
Earlier this month, Nicholson, a philanthropic organization dedicated to assisting New Jersey’s underserved communities, embarked on the second phase of this campaign, dubbed NJ Sugarfreed.
Working with The Public Good Projects, a New York City-based nonprofit focused on public health, the partners will take the initiative statewide with a broader social media message, new support for the community organizations involved, and an effort to enroll corporate partners in underserved areas who will encourage their employees to drink water rather than sugary beverages.
Raquel Mazon Jeffers, a senior program officer who led the project for Nicholson, said the foundation is pleased with the initial sales data, especially from Passaic, and encouraged by the campaign’s potential. “It’s definitely a big difference. We are very proud,” she said, adding, “We are very well set up to make an even bigger difference in the next round.”
Sweetened foods and beverages are a leading contributor to the nation’s obesity epidemic, Nicholson said, and artificially or sugar-sweetened beverages (known as SSBs) are the largest source of added sugar in the American diet. In New Jersey, three out of five residents are either overweight or obese, along with one in four high school students, according to the initial report. State data suggests that despite ongoing efforts to counter the trend, obesity has been on the rise in both kids and adults in recent years.
Tailoring the message
When it comes to sodas and juice mixes, studies have shown greater consumption among low-income, African-American, and Hispanic families, so Nicholson worked with Public Good to develop messages that would connect with individuals in these communities. They also focused on mothers, who often control the purchasing decisions for the family.
The project began with a public survey of nearly 800 residents to set a baseline for SSB consumption and gauge people’s understanding of these products and their associated health concerns. At the start, nearly 12 percent of those queried — and 17 percent of Passaic County participants — were considered heavy soda drinkers, consuming one or more of these beverages every day, researchers found.
Public Good then recruited 30 community organizations in Passaic County to help spread the messages it had developed and enlisted individual Paterson residents to serve as spokespeople for the campaign. Some of these community members recorded video messages about their lifestyle and food and beverage choices. The organizations also developed cartoon versions of the pitch aimed at kids.
“My name is Ebony Jinadu. I have two children,” testifies a young mother in one 12-second clip. “We prefer to be a no-soda home. We just try our best to stay away from sugar. I’m happy to say they have been cavity-free thus far.”
“I want to make sure my children are off to a healthy start,” explains Andrea Blanton, a mother of four who outlaws soda in her home, in another video. “Water’s free, and it’s healthy for the body.”
After nine months of targeted social media activity, NJ Sugarfreed leaders conducted a follow-up poll to see if and how their outreach had changed how people thought about sugary beverages. The findings showed that after the campaign, participants — in Passaic and statewide — had a better understanding of the connection between SSBs and tooth decay or chronic diseases like diabetes. Data also indicated respondents were trying harder to cut down on soda and juice mix consumption.
Tracking response on social media
The campaign also evaluated how these messages reverberated throughout social media, to see how they could reach new eyes. By tracking posts to Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and other forums, in both English and Spanish, researchers found that discussions of SSBs ticked up by nearly two-thirds during the campaign, to reach an average of nearly two-dozen mentions each day.
While the campaign is not advocating for an additional tax on sugared beverages, researchers used the surveys to test support for this idea. At least six cities — including Philadelphia and Chicago — have imposed those levies in an effort to reduce consumption and fund health-related programs. (New York City has also considered such a program.)
NJ Sugarfreed found that, statewide, about 40 percent of those surveyed opposed paying an extra tax on SSBs, and 40 percent supported the idea. These numbers changed little when respondents learned more about how the revenue could be used to improve public health.
But in Passaic, the campaign found greater acceptance of the higher-tax concept and more flexibility. Initially, 35 percent of those surveyed opposed the idea, while 50 percent favored it. When told the funding generated could go to childhood obesity programs, opposition dipped to 26.5 percent and support increased to 56 percent. (Some people did not have an opinion either way.)
Voting with their wallets
For Jeffers, the most noteworthy results were the decline in sales, particularly in Passaic County. “The only way to measure behavior change is to look at the sales data. We were able to measure changes in knowledge and attitude using the survey, but the only real way to capture behavior change” is through purchases, she said.
To do so, the campaign hired Information Resources Inc., a market research firm that typically works with for-profit companies, to scrub data from supermarkets, drug stores, bodegas, and other outlets to identify who was buying what beverages. IRI reviewed two months of purchase data before the campaign started and compared it to reports for the two months after the outreach ended, revealing a decline in purchases for all kinds of sugary drinks.
Going forward, Nicholson plans to use the same approach — and other elements — to expand the reach of the campaign over the next year and a half. A webinar to help community-based organizations build their social media capacity is scheduled for the coming weeks, Jeffers said, reflecting a need that was discovered in round one.
Public Good is working to engage large employers, like hospitals, online companies, and other firms with a presence in underserved parts of the state, she said. The hope is to convince at least 50 companies to sign a pledge promising to work to reduce sugary beverage consumption at their facilities by swapping out soda machines in break rooms for those that offer water, or empowering employees to serve as healthy beverage ambassadors.