Energy-dense nutrient-poor food marketing to children through product packaging: a problem for health and parenting

Food marketing targeting children

Research conducted by Flinders University in South Australia, on marketing through child-oriented food product packaging, found high volume and power of marketing energy-dense nutrient-poor foods (EDNP)1. A large supermarket chain was chosen because the Australian supermarket sector is controlled by two large supermarket chains which essentially sell similar products. Food products in all aisles were assessed for inclusion as child-oriented, using a set of marketing criteria commonly accepted by researchers in this field (see paper for details1). The study found 157 discrete child-oriented products with 75% representing EDNP foods; confectionary, chocolate and snacks were the highest categories of EDNP foods. There was strong occurrence of marketing techniques that appeal to children, such as graphics (99% products), cartoons and celebrities (85% products), claims about health and nutrition (64% products) and cross promotions (77% products). Children are known to be highly attracted to cartoon characters, celebrities and animals, and to prefer foods with cartoon iconography over foods with plain packaging.

Parents in Australia have consistently called for restrictions on the use of cartoon and celebrity characters in marketing foods to children. Many marketing techniques (more than 16 unique marketing techniques) were used, with a median of six marketing techniques per product. There was no significant difference between the application of marketing techniques to healthy or EDNP foods, indicating that food companies appear not to prejudice their marketing towards EDNP foods; this may be exploited in the future for the social marketing of healthy foods to children.

Energy-dense nutrient-poor food marketing should be restricted to prevent childhood obesity

Energy-dense nutrient-poor food marketing targeting children has been identified as contributing to the problem of childhood obesity and we have consequently seen the food industry reduce television advertising to children. However the problem of children’s exposure has not gone away as marketing investment has simply moved to non-broadcast media, and in fact marketing on these new media has the potential to employ more formidable techniques to influence children. Consequently the World Health Organization has called on member countries to restrict exposure and power of EDNP food marketing as a strategy to prevent childhood obesity. Investment in marketing through product packaging is significant and children are a particularly lucrative demographic, making supermarkets a potent site of children’s pester power as they co-shop with their parents. The conflict associated with product refusal makes co-shopping a stressful experience for many parents and one to be avoided, when in fact it could be an important part of a child’s consumer socialization.

Nutrition and health claims: two possible uses

The study also found claims about health and nutrition on more than half (56%) of EDNP food products. Health and nutrition claims are used by adult and child shoppers to inform their product choices and misleading information signals intent on the part of companies to deceive and confuse consumers. In a qualitative study by Mehta et al. (2010)2, parents expressed concerns about nutrition and health claims exploiting their children’s credulity, while children, on the other hand, described using the very same claims to persuade their parents to purchase products.

Industry self-regulatory codes in Australia, pledging restrictions on EDNP food marketing to children, currently do not extend to product packaging. Children’s high exposure to EDNP food via product packaging, and the associated power of the marketing techniques to influence children’s food choices, warrant serious consideration by policy makers who want to reduce childhood obesity and improve children’s diets generally.

  1. Mehta, K., C. Phillips, et al. (2012). “Marketing foods to children through product packaging: prolific, unhealthy and misleading.” Public Health Nutrition.
  2. Mehta, K., J. Coveney, et al. (2010). Parents’ and children’s experience of food and beverage marketing directed at children. Flinders University. Report to SA Health. South Australian Government, Adelaide.
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