Children and young people: food and food marketing
Children and young people: food and food marketing

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Children and young people: food and food marketing

1 The ‘advertised diet’

Described image
Figure 1 A selection of chocolate bars

One of the defining features of the world today is a high level of obesity among children worldwide. This is not only in countries such as the UK, where nearly a third of children aged 2–15 are overweight or obese, but also in the rest of the world, where obesity is rising rapidly. This includes countries where malnutrition is also found. Obesity brings risks to health and mental health through childhood and the rest of life.

This rapid rise in obesity is thought to be caused by environmental factors. This is because obesity has risen recently and rapidly. Among these environmental factors are:

  • how food is produced and processed
  • poverty that makes it challenging to afford healthier foods which are more expensive
  • urban planning that doesn’t support physical activity or healthy food supply, such as lack of safe walking and cycling options and lack of healthy foods in some parts of cities, and near schools
  • living and working conditions that promote stress, job and housing insecurity, and don’t support home food preparation
  • interacting with all these factors, the very widespread promotion (marketing and advertising) of unhealthy foods in the media, in shops, on transport, and in sports and entertainment venues, which has been shown to increase children’s unhealthy food preferences, requests, and hence eating (look at the article Obesity and the economics of prevention: fit not fat [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ).

Activity 1

While you watch the following video, look out for these key points:

The video features two Open University academics, Heather Montgomery and Mimi Tatlow-Golden.

  • What does Mimi mean when she talks about an ‘advertised diet’?
  • What ages do children start becoming aware of food marketing?
  • Why might this be problematic?
Download this video clip.Video player: e808_2018j_vid006-640x360.mp4
Skip transcript



Hello. I'm Heather Montgomery. I'm here today with my colleague psychologist, Dr. Mimi Tatlow-Golden, who's going to be talking about the work she's done on children. And you've worked on children and food, I believe?
I have. Yeah. Yeah. I also do some work around children, they're learning about food, and what do they absorb from the environment around them as it were in a broad sense. So one of the things I'm really interested in is children's learning about food from food marketing. So that will be the advertising that sort of saturates the world around us. And we call that their advertised diet. So obviously, there is what they eat, but there's also the world of visual representations that they're surrounded by as well. And children's advertised diet is really dominated by things that aren't very healthy to eat a lot. And there's a lot of evidence that suggests that that affects the choices that they make and the things that they and their parents feel is normal to eat. So I was interested in finding out working with little children, three to five-year-olds, and finding out at what age does their knowledge about food brands start to jump up and comparing that to their understanding of what's healthy to eat. And I found that their knowledge of food brands is at least a year ahead of their early understanding of this is healthy or that's unhealthy. So that suggests to us that the food companies are getting in there well before the impact of parenting and the family and saying this is what's good to eat will start to have an effect. And that's genuinely a concern.
And as is digital marketing to children, which is another of your interests.
Yes. So that work that I did with preschoolers was focused quite a lot on their television viewing. And now, of course, digital media are becoming very powerful in children's lives. So I don't really take the position that a lot of adults and policymakers that I hear have heard quite a lot of people say, well, get them off Facebook or get them away from whatever social media or devices they're on. I don't think that's realistic. This is the world that we're living in. So it's really about understanding how do young people engage with those media and what kind of an effect might that be having on them. So early research that we're doing at the moment is discovering that unhealthy food is an important part of children's self-presentation in social media and also how they rate people their own age who they view in social media. So they're more likely to rate them positively if they are associated with unhealthy food ads than if they're associated with healthy food ads in their social media streams. So that suggests to us that there's something going on here in early adolescence where children's developing identity is really important, and they're growing their relationships with their peer group. And, at that time, they're using unhealthy food as a way of presenting themselves, as a way of assessing their peers, and, of course, obesity is such a concern globally actually now, even in countries where there's malnutrition as well. So we believe that that's something that policymakers really need to be attending to now.
Mimi, that was fascinating. Thank you so much for joining us today.
End transcript
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Mimi’s research has shown that from their earliest days, children recognise more unhealthy food brand logos than healthy ones (see the article Young children’s food brand knowledge), and this knowledge of food brands increases rapidly from the age of 3 years. Indeed, their knowledge of unhealthy food brands increases earlier than their understanding of which foods are not healthy to eat (see the article ‘Big, strong and healthy’: young children’s identification of food and drink that contribute to healthy growth) – suggesting that advertisers and marketers are communicating with children about food effectively in the earliest years of life.

Children’s ‘advertised diet’ is largely unhealthy – about three-quarters of ads that even very young children see on television are for items such as fast food, sweets, chocolate and other foods high in saturated fats, sugar, artificial sweeteners, and salt, that the World Health Organization recommends should not be advertised to children (see Creative good feelings about unhealthy food). This creates the impression that it is quite the norm for children to eat such foods frequently – when in fact the opposite is what’s recommended. Furthermore, these ads create powerful emotional associations with such foods, with imagery and stories that evoke delicious tastes and aromas, fun, magic, imagination, humour and powerful pleasure. They also often show children running around and playing energetically – creating the impression that these foods are associated with being active and healthy.


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