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A whole new world of communication: Combating the obesity crisis

During the past forty years global rates of overweight and obesity have risen dramatically. In 2010 more than 155 million children worldwide were overweight (more than one in ten) and of these approximately 30-45 million were obese, or between two and three per cent of the world’s 5-17 year-old children.

In Australia, more than 14 million people fall within the overweight or obese range, and Australia is ranked as one of the fattest nations in the developed world. The prevalence of obesity in Australia has more than doubled in the past 20 years, and children are at particular risk of overweight and obesity.

But the answer is probably not a ban on all marketing to children. In the first instance, simply the practicalities of a blanket ban would be incredibly difficult, particularly in trying to keep up with the constantly changing promotional environment.

The focus of any strategies in this field should first and foremost start with the outcomes we seek, and the realities of what currently exists, with the welfare of children as the aim.

Simply pointing fingers, blaming one group or another (including parents), using simplistic terms such as "nanny state" to create an argument, or banning specific promotional tools, is not going to be useful in the long-term.

Ultimately, a more collaborative approach between academia, industry, government, public health, and families is needed, but each group has to take responsibility, be committed to the final outcome, and each has to be serious about understanding where the harm occurs. In addition, the capacity to predict or anticipation problems in this field has to be part of the corporate, regulatory and research approach.

The common fallback, particularly from the food marketing industry, and sometimes politicians, seems to be that it is the sole responsibility of parents to impart sensible attitudes towards the purchase and consumption of healthy and unhealthy food. The problem with this argument is that this becomes a particularly onerous responsibility to place squarely, and solely, upon parents, particularly in the absence of any corresponding and equitable responsibility placed upon the food and marketing industry. While parents can restrict their children’s exposure to advertising, this is becoming more difficult, given the ubiquity and access to multiple media platforms.

And the reality is that the values of parents and marketers diverge. Simply put, marketers want to sell stuff; parents want to bring up healthy children. While not mutually exclusive, these are two very different goals.

Another major concern is the power disparity between families and industry, in that parents are individuals trying to make their way in the world, taking in huge amounts of information about the best options for their kids, while the food industry has a single focus, and all of their resources are used to attain this one goal.

My general argument is that the food industry (particularly the junk food industry) should stop pretending that they have played no role in creating the obesity crisis, nor any responsibility for making it easier for kids to eat healthy, and more difficult for them to eat unhealthily.

During the late 1950s and early 60s, marketing appeals targeting children underwent a shift from focusing on product attributes towards increased use of symbolism, classic archetypes, and appeals to cultural values. Two specific appeals that emerged in marketing a variety of products and services to children are of ‘fun’ and ‘cool’. Fun has become increasingly important element of marketing to children in recent decades, and connects sociability, maternal care, and commercial interests.

Marketing of ‘children’s food’, which has emerged as a separate product category, tends to rely less on the nutritive or functional qualities of the food, and more on symbols and signs that create and reflect meaning in a child’s world.

Even the establishment of the “child consumer” is a relatively new phenomena in marketing, and only emerged in marketing in the late seventies.

The food industry, and to a lesser extent the marketing industry, have attempted to defend their actions, by suggesting calls for action in the sector that don’t necessarily reduce the capacity to generate profits. Industry seeks to focus on the importance of a laissez-faire approach favouring market-driven strategies that stimulate consumer desire for healthier food options, rather than recognising that the marketing of unhealthy food also influences behaviour.

Self-regulation has emerged as another common response to this issue. Yet the majority of resulting self-regulation measures only target advertising, even though traditional advertising is regarded as less effective than it once was. Advertising has historically been a dominant and influential technique in marketing, but in the face of media and audience fragmentation, technological advancements (especially the proliferation of digital technologies), and more sophisticated measurement and evaluation techniques, advertising is now one of an ever-increasing number of promotional techniques used by companies to reach their targeted audience segments.

Advertising does not exist or operate in isolation from other aspects of marketing activities. Packaging, sales promotion, use of cartoon characters, in-game advertising, and celebrity endorsement are all forms of marketing used by the food industry. On their own, these activities are relatively innocuous, but when connected with junk food, they have potential to cause real harm to children. It is the linkage between multiple communication tools that results in a form of cultural wallpaper, where it is no longer simply a lot of marketing. It just forms part of our culture.

Researchers in the area of marketing call this Integrated Marketing Communication (IMC), while the food industry simply refers to this as marketing. But IMC presents a range of ethical concerns, in that it challenges caregiver authority, exploits cognitive development and processing, engages with target customer using multiple communication channels (such as online, sponsorship, promotion in schools), engages the target consumers in co-creation (by making them part of the brand), and leverages subtlety (where tactics are increasingly being integrated into traditionally non-promotional opportunities).

IMC is about synergy; about the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. Marketers who apply IMC realise this and use it to their commercial advantage. These factors don’t operate in isolation, but build upon one other in a complex and dynamic way.

This approach to promotion represents a paradigm shift away from traditional conceptualisations of marketing and advertising. Similarly, its response requires a similar paradigm shift to traditional public health responses.

The first step in this shift is recognising and understanding IMC, the broader environmental factors and dynamics that support it, and its implications in the issue of promoting energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods and beverages to young people.

The second step is to resist the call for blanket bans, but engage all parties in an honest, open and realistic dialogue to attain better outcomes for our children. This is the key – rather than finger pointing or blame shifting, the welfare of children should be the focus.


This piece is based upon research conducted for the book chapter, "Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) and power imbalance: the strategic nature of marketing to children and adolescents by food and beverage companies" written by Paul Harrison and Michaela Jackson and published in Advances in Communication Research to Reduce Childhood Obesity.

An excerpt of this opinion piece was also published in the National Times (The AgeThe Canberra Times, and The Sydney Morning Herald) on 28 December, 2012.


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