Parents' and children's perceptions of food and beverage marketing to which children are exposed.

Author: Kaye Mehta

Mehta, Kaye, 2013 Parents' and children's perceptions of food and beverage marketing to which children are exposed., Flinders University, School of Medicine

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Introduction The association between children's exposure to marketing communications for energy-dense nutrient poor (EDNP) foods, the consequent influence on their food choices, and the rising rates of childhood obesity have been recognised by International and Australian health organisations, as constituting a public health problem. A trend has been observed for marketing communications to move from traditional media (such as television advertising) to non-broadcast media (such as, the Internet). Children's high engagement with screen-based media increases the potential for exposure to marketing messages on media such as the Internet, videogames, DVD's television programs and movies. The marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children, and the concomitant influence on children's food preferences and consumer behaviour (pestering) is also considered to undermine parental authority to regulate children's food choices, and add to the stress of parenting. Public policy to restrict the impact of EDNP food marketing on children has progressed slowly in many countries; the policy debate appears to have got 'stuck' on the issue of responsibility, in other words, 'who is responsible for the problem of children's poor nutritional intake, lack of physical activity and consequent obesity'. Community input into policies and decisions that effect their health outcomes is an important primary health care principle which has informed this doctoral research; namely, to elicit the views of parents and children, about their perceptions of food and beverage marketing to which children are exposed. Review of literature The following literature was reviewed in order to elicit the theoretical frames and empirical evidence that could inform the research: marketing within the context of consumer society; neo-liberalism; children and consumerism; food marketing to the child consumer; parenting the child consumer; and, ethics. Methodology & methods This research set out to explore parents' and children's perceptions of food marketing to which children are exposed. The research conducted interviews with parent-child dyads (with children aged between 8 -13 years), to discover their awareness of, responses to, and opinions about food and beverage marketing, that children are exposed to. The research objectives were to examine children's and parents': general understandings and perceptions of marketing and its effects on children; awareness of marketing on non-broadcast media; specific understandings and perceptions about marketing on a range of non-broadcast media; opinions and concerns about marketing; consumer identity; perceptions of responsibility and governance in relation to marketing; and perceptions of regulation in relation to marketing. The research was based on the epistemology of constructionism, the theoretical perspective of interpretivism and, qualitative methodology. The research used semi-structured individual interviews and focus groups to explore parents' and children's perceptions of food marketing to which children are exposed. Findings and discussion The findings from my research emerged out of two rounds of interviews with the thirteen parent-child dyads. The parents and children in this study exemplified neo-liberal citizenry who accepted food marketing as part of modern capitalist society, and who individualised the problem of unhealthy food marketing that children were exposed to. They considered that parents were primarily responsible for mitigating the adverse effects of unhealthy food marketing, and parents did this by regulating children's food choices and media use. Parents were highly reflexive of their parenting practices, and embodied the 'good parent' discourse, demonstrating pride in their firmness and being judgemental of other parents who gave in too easily to their children's demands. The parents applied authoritative parenting principles effectively to regulate their children's diets and media access, and their children in turn appeared to comply with parenting rules and practices. The regulation of children's utilization of new media however showed up weaknesses in parental mitigation of marketing exposure and effects. The parents and children portrayed a complex mixture of idealistic and pragmatic views about the ethics of marketing food and beverages to children. They appeared to be caught within the paradox of problemetizing unhealthy food marketing to children, both as a social problem and as an individual problem. The dilemma expressed by parents is not dissimilar to the broader policy debate in Australia, on the matter of food marketing to children; it appears that policy-makers also are constrained by conflicting analyses of unhealthy food marketing as a social and as an individual problem. Parents were particularly concerned about marketing techniques on non-broadcast media such as the Internet and product packaging. The children's responses as consumers of marketing demonstrate the strong 'social' power of marketing vis a vis children's sense of belonging within society and their peer group. Their sophisticated use of claims in their persuasion attempts with parents, their perception of themselves as resilient, and their confusion about the nutritional benefits of branded and unbranded foods, suggest a complex and paradoxical mix of naive as well as savvy consumer. Parents also were enmeshed in a complex relationship with marketing, as primary purchasers of their children's food; they both resisted marketing for ethical reasons and engaged with it for pragmatic reasons. Their relationship with food as treats was emblemetic of the complex rationalities involved in parenting and regulating children's diets. Conclusion This research can make a positive contribution to the current policy debate in Australia on restricting children's exposure to EDNP food marketing, by showing the perspectives of parents and children, on some of the central elements of the debate, namely ethics, responsibility and regulation.

Keywords: marketing to children,parenting,regulation,ethics

Subject: Public Health thesis

Thesis type: Doctor of Philosophy
Completed: 2013
School: School of Medicine
Supervisor: Professor John Coveney