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


Tidbits from a Former Twitter Hater: PART II

(Read PART I)

Still need convincing? Twitter brings you closer. Just as Twitter’s CEO Dick Costolo said Tuesday in an interview on NBC’s Today show, Twitter truly brings you closer—and this is beyond just your real-life friends’ goings-on. What Costolo really means is that Twitter brings us closer to our heroes, major news sources, industry experts, celebrities, and more. Now that I’ve actually jumped into the channel, I’m able to make professional connections across the nation, give instant feedback on new products or research, and perpetuate health information to the populations most affected. Narrowing the experience down to these three points that convinced me of Twitter’s validity as a communication platform:

Research: Once you get passed the grammar and syntax errors made in the name of the 140-character limit, Twitter becomes a vast world of free, relevant, and current research that is searchable and fresh! And I’m not the only one abusing the channel for my own selfish need-to-know reasons; according to an infographic from

  • 52 percent of Twitter users access the site to stay up-to-date on news.
  • 45 percent use the channel for work-related projects.
  • Nearly 20 percent use it explicitly for research.

Gone are the days of Googling for hours or feeling behind the times; Twitter offers an interactive, central platform for users to connect with the latest news and trends via a variety of influencers, experts, and regular Joe Shmoe’s.

Multimedia: While at first glance it may seem like a string of nonsense linked together by “#” and “@” symbols,a closer look reveals that Twitter is also a rich compendium of endless photos, videos, and audio and web links. Nearly 30 percent of Twitter users upload videos (that’s 700 million YouTube videos per minute) and 40 percent share photos. But these visuals embedded into tweets aren’t being shared to an empty room and falling flat. The general population—liking photos twice as often as text and sharing videos 12 times more than text—is unable to ignore this type of information that is reformatted visually to tell stories, convey emotion, and paint vivid pictures of reality. (Side note: This uptick in visuals is priceless to health communicators who now know that video is the number one most influential source in changing perceptions in users ages 13–24 years old, according to a recent Google event attended by the Danya team.) The entertainment quality of visual information is hard to deny, but how quickly videos and photos spread across the globe on a platform like Twitter is astounding.

Total integration, real connections: Probably the most convincing aspect of Twitter to me is that now, slightly more than 6 years after its conception, Twitter has a function and purpose. Whereas before people were using it haphazardly with no true goals in mind (other than to adopt the new tool because everyone else was), time and lessons learned have enabled businesses to fully integrate its use into marketing plans for the purpose of genuine engagement with their customers. Local weather forecasters use it to tell those with asthma to stay indoors on a high-smog day; policy makers use it to survey their communities and test initiatives; marketers use it to gauge public response to new products or a company’s reputation. The platform has been successful long enough that executives can see a return on incorporating the tool and its capabilities into all areas of a company: engaging in digital conversations with real people.

Still need a push in Twitter’s direction? Or just want a better understanding of social media in general? Read Part III of this post and join us next Thursday, September 27 from 10 a.m.–2 p.m. for Danya’s Social Media Day and help us celebrate the digital revolution!

By Katy Capers