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Published 12 February 2018

Cameras on kids turn spotlight on ‘healthy’ marketing

Portable cameras have revealed how our kids are exposed to junk food advertisements nearly 30 times each day, fuelling concerns over how marketing might be contributing to New Zealand’s childhood obesity epidemic

By Jamie Morton, originally published in the New Zealand Herald, 28 December 2017

Now, in a first-of-its-kind study, researchers want to use the same child’s-eye-view approach to measure the impact of exposure to “healthy” marketing.

“Global concerns about childhood obesity and the negative effects of marketing junk food have created a new opportunity for corporations — the marketing of healthy products and lifestyles to children,” said University
of Auckland researcher Dr Darren Powell, who is leading the study.

“Whilst there is a large body of literature examining the relationship between unhealthy food marketing and childhood obesity, relatively little is known about how the rapid turn to marketing healthy products and lifestyles influences children.”

Indeed, he said, there was concern that some of the marketing messages that children receive about how to be healthy — especially those relating to bodies — may actually be rather unhealthy for children.

His study, supported with a $300,000 Marsden Fund grant, follows work by New Zealand researchers that involved tracking the everyday perspectives of kids through cameras mounted around their necks. One recent study, drawing on footage from more than 160 children in the Wellington region, showed the kids were seeing an average 27 pieces of junk food advertisements every day.

The ‘Coca-Colonisation’ of health

In this project, 16 children from two schools, and aged between 7 and 9, would also use wearable cameras over a year to collect images from homes, schools, and sports clubs. 

Powell and colleagues will also be interviewing the children’s friends, family, teachers, coaches and others to ultimately create a rich picture of how marketing healthy products and lifestyles shapes children’s knowledge and behaviour. “This includes a critical examination of the ‘Coca- Colonisation’ of health — how ‘other’ ways of understanding health maybe created, maintained, or overpowered by contemporary marketing policies and practices.”

Powell, a former primary school teacher who now lectures in curriculum and pedagogy, said current literature tended to oversimplify and overstate the relationship between marketing and health, suggesting that junk food marketing was bad for children’s health, and that healthy marketing was good.

“There is a large body of literature that correlates unhealthy food and drink advertising with poor health outcomes for children,” he said. Yet, he said, there was a distinct lack of research that challenged the assumption that marketing healthy products and lifestyles by companies — whether fast food chains or sportswear makers and weight-loss products — was inherently healthy.

The Maori perspective

Powell saw the study being especially relevant to Maori and Pasifika children, who would be represented among the participants. One third of school-aged Kiwi children were now considered overweight or obese, and one in nine children between 2 and 14 were obese, including 30 per cent of Pacific children and 15 per cent of Maori children. Figures also showed one in five children living in socioeconomically deprived areas were obese, compared with one in 50 children living in the least deprived areas.