Parenting in an Obesogenic Environment

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

This article explores the impact of a food-marketing trend that uses fun to sell unhealthy food to children. Twenty-one mothers of young children were interviewed (nine in focus groups and twelve in indepth interviews). The study found evidence of significant and potentially harmful changes in the food preferences and food consumption behaviours of children in response to these techniques. The findings also suggest that these techniques are increasing family conflict and undermining parental authority.

The combination of food and entertainment has been referred to as 'eatertainment' by the food industry, trade press and media. This food-marketing trend is aimed at children and utilises several 'fun' techniques:

* Premium offers (the offer of something free as an inducement to purchase, e.g., free toys, stickers and trading cards inside packages of snack foods, cereals and convenience foods);

* Children's licensed characters and movie tie-ins on food packaging,

* 'Kidz meals' combining child-sized portions of food with soft drinks and free toys or confectionery. Pioneered by fast food restaurants, this model is being widely adopted by restaurants and cafes and is now also available in supermarkets.

* Fun product designs that incorporate interactive play value, often incorporating unusual shapes, textures, colours, tastes and smells, and characters printed directly onto the food.

The purpose of this study was to improve our understanding of the consequences of food promotion by investigating the impact of marketing activities that use fun to sell unhealthy food to children.

Method

The research design incorporated a grounded, phenomenological approach to generate new insights on the complex issue of how food promotion influences children's food consumption. Focus groups were combined with in-depth interviews to provide different and complimentary contributions to the research problem. Two focus groups (containing nine participants in total) and twelve indepth individual interviews were conducted. Interviewees were middle-class mothers with primary school children. Although this was a convenience sample, a representative balance was achieved between single and two-parent families, working and non-working mothers and a wide spread of child gender and age. The individual interviews offered detailed insights into the impact on everyday food consumption, however their effectiveness was reduced by social desirability response bias. Interviewees were reluctant to discuss the unhealthy food their children consumed, requiring extensive probing and lengthy interviews to establish trust and allow meaningful discussion. This problem was surprisingly reduced (though not entirely absent) in the focus groups, where the shared camaraderie of 'mothers-in-arms' allowed parents to lower their masks and talk freely about their triumphs and failures with their children's diets.

Findings

Without exception, the mothers discussed examples of premiums driving greater demand for unhealthy food. This was especially apparent with collectable premiums-frequently included in cereals and chip packets and in sets of characters included with fast food meals.

Mine went crazy when the Tazos were in the chip packets...We were getting chips all the time... they'd get chips they didn't even like (mother of two).

They do want to go back to get the other ones in the set...if there's five games, they'll want to get the whole set. If there's a good toy, they'll pester me to go to McDonald's. It's got nothing to do with the food, it's all to do with the toy (mother of four).

The fun appeal of these products appears to create greater resonance between child and brand, with children embracing these 'fun foods' as much for their play potential as their taste appeal. Play is experienced on two levels: interactive play with the product through dunking (Dunkaroos), unwinding (Roll-ups) and shredding (Cheese Stringers), and playing with friends through the trading of snacks or premiums (Tazos or cards). …