‘Sugar Bites’ Campaign Educates on Sugary Drinks & Childhood Obesity

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Sugary drinks are a large component of added calories in the American diet. Latino kids have increased their consumption of sugary drinks—such as soft drinks, sports drinks, fruit-flavored drinks, and flavored milk—between 1991 and 2008, research shows. In Contra Costa, Calif., where 24% of the population is Latino, one of every three kids from low-income families are overweight or obese. A county organization worked with an advertising agency to develop a bilingual social marketing campaign, called Sugar Bites, to urge parents to choose water for their kids instead of sugary drinks.

EMERGENCE

Awareness: First 5 California is a state organization funded by Proposition 10, a statewide ballot initiative passed in 1998, to conduct health and education programs to benefit children ages 0-5.

First 5 California centers its efforts on the child, parent, and teacher to improve early childhood outcomes in the areas of health and nutrition, early literacy and language development, quality child care and smoking cessation. They deal with issues of breastfeeding, developmental disabilities, preschool programs, special needs training, homeless families, childhood nutrition and family support.

The program has 58 county commissions across the state. One of those commissions is First 5 Contra Costa.

Through its local work in Contra Costa County, Calif., First 5 CC officials has heightened awareness of the importance of educating parents of young kids about early childhood obesity.

But such education was lacking. Through a survey accessing the knowledge parents have about healthy eating and drinking habits, they found that most parents did not know about the effects of sugar-sweetened sodas and juices on young children.

“In 2010, one in three low-income kids in Contra Costa County ages 2-5 were overweight or obese,” said Tracy Irwin, public affairs manager at First 5. “Childhood obesity is a public health crisis. It not only threatens the health and future of our children, but the financial stability of our health care system.”

With obesity being such a relevant issue in their county, First Five CC knew that now was the time to begin educating people about the effects of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption.

Learn: The First 5 CC team began to look at other campaigns that addressed issues related to childhood obesity. They noticed that some campaigns had an aggressive or graphic nature, which they wanted to avoid because they focused on toddlers and young children. Another marketing theme was placing blame, or shaming, children and their parents for their obesity. First 5 CC officials knew that this was not the route they wanted to go.

They conducted a parent survey and generated a lot of feedback on sugary drinks.

“Anecdotally, parents told us they weren’t aware of the high sugar content and low nutritional value in many sugary juice drinks…with three out of four parents reporting they had served their kids juice or a fruit drink the day before,” Irwin said. “This is not surprising given the way sugary juice drinks are endlessly marketed as healthful by the beverage industry.”

A photo showing a "Sugar Bites" ad in a pubic space
Source: Tracy Irwin, First 5 Contra Costa

Irwin said, based on survey results, First 5 CC chose to focus their campaign on sugary drinks.

Frame Issue: First 5 CC began to examine different ways their campaign might address sugary drinks—removing sodas, the unhealthy aspects of juice, drinking more water, and taxing sugary drinks.

First 5 decided to make parental education the focus.

So instead of centering on a controversial issue, such as sugary drink taxes, they felt the strongest thing they could do was find a way to counteract the unhealthy drink messages parents get on a daily basis from companies and marketers.

“The beverage industry spends millions marketing sugary drinks to children, especially to Latino and African American children,” Irwin said. “This campaign provides a much-needed counter message about the serious health risks associated with these drinks.”

First 5 CC’s funding Prop 10 gave them the money they needed to begin this marketing campaign. They also received funding from a Kaiser Permanente grant that Health and Active Before Five (HAB45) secured for them. HAB45 is the county’s early childhood obesity collaborative, which First 5 CC is members of, and aided by serving on the Sugar Bites development committee for the marketing campaign.

DEVELOPMENT

Education: With the goal of educating parents about the health risks of sugary drinks, First 5 CC began reaching out to their community and social marketing experts to create its first marketing campaign.

First 5 CC officials believed they needed the skills and creative powers of an advertisement firm to create their marketing campaign. They began reaching out to companies and individuals that could help design and implement their campaign ideas.

Several companies applied. Many social marketing and advertising firms were excited to work with First 5 CC because they were planning to use marketing to create a healthier future for kids, Irwin said.

Mobilization: One group’s experience with social marketing and campaign design was a good fit, Irwin said.

A First 5 CC committee chose Better World Advertising (BWA) because “we were interested in producing a hard-hitting campaign, which BWA is known for and has successfully done many times over,” Irwin said.

BWA officials got on board and familiarized themselves with sugary drink issues.

“The resources for learning about [sugar-sweetened beverages] are vast and, for us, have included things like other local and national campaigns, news articles, research papers, CDC information, community organizations committed to nutrition, public health conferences and existing relationships with health departments around the country,” said Heather Holt, BWA project manager.

Debate: Members from First 5 CC, BWA, and HAB45 formed the Sugar Bites development committee and began to narrow their creative focus to identify the message they wanted to send and what the materials would look like.

“[We wanted] to produce a hard-hitting bilingual campaign that would grab parents’ attention, start conversations, elicit strong reactions, and ultimately lead to behavior change—reduce children’s consumption of sugary beverages and increase consumption of water,” Irwin said.

BWA drafted ideas and passed them by the committee members.

“Initially, there were two potential approaches that we considered taking: one was to promote water and the other was to target sugary drinks. We decided that targeting [sugar-sweetened beverages] would allow us to take a more aggressive and hard hitting approach, which would be necessary for the campaign to have an impact,” Holt said.

The committee chose to go with a campaign that played off the word “bite” featuring a sugary drink with teeth—hence the campaign name, “Sugar Bites.”

ENACTMENT

Activation: The Sugar Bites committee and community members helped continue to refine the campaign.

First 5 CC formed a small focus group of parents to review the in-progress ads and give their thoughts on the design. This focus group helped form what would be the current and final design. The initial design did not feature a child, but the focus group wanted the ads to reinforce that young children are affected by excess sugar consumption.

Frame Policy: After receiving the input from the focus group, the Sugar Bites committee began developing their final product and making plans on when to implement it and how to disseminate it throughout the community, such as posters, flyers, infographics, etc.

BWA also helped First 5 CC develop a website to educate parents who wanted to know how sugary drinks impact children and what healthier drink options are available.

Change: In May 2013, First 5 CC and BWA unveiled the bilingual advertisements in these forms:
• Poster
• Flyer
• Bank cash envelopes
• Educational brochures
• Infographics, educational information, and resources on a website

“The goal was to deliver a message that was clear, easy to understand at a glance, portrayed sugary drinks as harmful and dangerous products and evoked a visceral reaction from parents to want to protect their kids,” Holt said.

IMPLEMENTATION

Implementation: In May 2013, officials began implementing the Sugar Bites Campaign across Contra Costa County, Calif.

The ads went up in more than 50 convenience stores, on the sides of bus shelters, on bank cash envelopes given out by local banks, in Bay Area Rapid Transit stations, and in educational brochures given out by health organizations. Most ads stayed prominently displayed in these locations for many months after they were placed.

Equity: Community reaction in the form of word of mouth by parents and health organizations indicate a positive reaction to the Sugar Bites campaign, First 5 CC officials said.

The Sugar Bites committee, which is still functioning, plans to conduct a survey to more fully gauge community reaction and measure the impact of the campaign on sugary drink consumption.

“We think the end result is certainly hard-hitting and provocative, but at the same time, stays true to our values to only shame and blame the products—not kids or families consuming them,” Irwin said.

Sustainability: The Sugar Bites campaign is not ending with their May 2013 production.

First 5 CC officials plan to work with BWA to develop more Sugar Bites ads focusing on juice and fruit drinks, as well as highlighting healthier alternative beverages kids can drink instead. Their original funding allowed them to have this two part campaign and continue promoting healthy choices.

“We plan to continue the campaign this spring [2014] by giving the ‘Sugar Bites’ treatment to more sugary juice drinks,” Irwin said. “We will also be partnering with other local groups to explore policy changes related to children consuming more water, such as water-mapping projects to determine where drinking fountains are readily available and where they are needed.”

Now that they are spreading the word about the health impact of sugary drinks, they want to increase the availability of water as a healthy alternative.

Once they design new ads on drinking more water and less sugary fruit drinks/juices, First 5 CC and BWA plan to display and disseminate them in the same way as the first wave of the campaign.

This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

ABOUT THE PROGRAM

Salud America! The RWJF Research Network to Prevent Obesity Among Latino Children is a national program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The program aims to educate researchers, decision-makers, community leaders, and the public in contributing toward healthier Latino communities and seeking environmental and policy solutions to the epidemic of Latino childhood obesity. The network is directed by the Institute for Health Promotion Research at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio.

For more information, visit http://www.salud-america.org.

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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

The stories are intended for educational and informative purposes. References to specific policymakers, individuals, schools, policies, or companies have been included solely to advance these purposes and do not constitute an endorsement, sponsorship, or recommendation. Stories are based on and told by real community members and are the opinions and views of the individuals whose stories are told. Organization and activities described were not supported by Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and do not necessarily represent the views of Salud America! or the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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