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Evidence-based policies encouraging healthy behaviours are often strongly opposed by well-funded industry groups. As public support is crucial for policy change, public health advocates need to be equipped with strategies to offset the impact of anti-policy messages. In this study, we aimed to investigate the effectiveness of theory-based public health advocacy messages in generating public support for sugary drink/alcohol policies (increased taxes; sport sponsorship bans) and improving resistance to subsequent anti-policy messages typical of the sugary drink/alcohol industry.
We conducted a two-wave randomised online experiment assigning Australian adults to one of four health policies (sugary drink tax; sugary drink industry sports sponsorship ban; alcohol tax; alcohol industry sports sponsorship ban). Within each health policy, we randomised participants to one of five message conditions: (i) non-advocacy based message about the size and seriousness of the relevant health issue (control); (ii) standard pro-policy arguments alone; (iii) standard pro-policy arguments combined with an inoculation message (forewarning and directly refuting anti-policy arguments from the opposition); (iv) standard pro-policy arguments combined with a narrative message (a short, personal story about an individual’s experience of the health issue); or (v) standard pro-policy arguments combined with a composite inoculation and narrative message. At time 1, we exposed participants (n = 6000) to their randomly assigned message. Around two weeks later, we re-contacted participants (n = 3285) and exposed them to an anti-policy message described as being from a representative of the sugary drink/alcohol industry. Generalised linear models tested for differences between conditions in policy support and anti-industry beliefs at both time points.
Only the standard argument plus narrative message increased policy support relative to control at time 1. The standard argument plus narrative and standard argument plus inoculation messages were effective at increasing resistance to the persuasive impact of anti-policy messages relative to control at time 2.
Dissemination of advocacy messages using inoculation or narrative components can help strengthen public resistance to subsequent anti-policy messages from industry groups.