Observations of Marketing on Food Packaging Targeted to Youth in Retail Food Stores
There is growing evidence that exposure to food marketing influences dietary preferences among youth. Few studies exploring this association, however, have focused on the retail food store environment where families negotiate the influence of food and beverage marketing on purchasing practices. Consequently, we sought to examine: (i) the extent to which foods marketed on the internet and television to youth are also available and marketed in retail food stores, and (ii) whether differences exist in the marketing practices across store types and by neighborhood racial composition. In 2008, a cross-sectional survey of 118 food stores was conducted in four Midwestern cities in the United States. Results showed that 82% of stores assessed carried items commonly marketed to youth via television or the internet. The items most likely to have some type of marketing technique were noncarbonated drinks (97.7%), fruit and cereal bars (76.9%), and soda (62.2%). Grocery stores were significantly more likely than convenience stores to have marketing for breads and pastries (34.6% vs. 17.9%), breakfast cereals (52.0% vs. 22.9%), cookies and crackers (54.2% vs. 25.3%), dairy (70.8% vs. 42.7%), and ice cream (23.8% vs. 9.8%). Stores located in black neighborhoods were significantly more likely to have marketing, in comparison to white neighborhoods, for breads and pastries (35.7% vs. 17.1%), breakfast cereals (44.4% vs. 25.0%), and cookies and crackers (48.1% vs. 26.3%). Our results highlight the importance of examining food marketing techniques in the retail food store environment, where visual cues from television and the internet may be reinforced.
An emerging body of literature suggests an association between exposure to food marketing and increases in childhood obesity (1). With notable exceptions, however, most of the empirical evidence supporting this association has focused on the television as a vehicle of marketing to children in the home, with limited attention to the broader nutrition environment in which families are embedded (2,3,4,5). The focus on television does not take into account the various social contexts in which children and families are exposed to food marketing, thus limiting the potential for effective interventions.
The retail food store environment in the United States, where major food and beverage companies spend ∼$200M per year on marketing and promotions, remains an understudied space (2,6). Given the importance of visual cues that may influence children and families at the point-of-purchase, however, examinations of marketing techniques in retail food environments are warranted. Moreover, several studies suggest an increase in the amount of time children spend shopping with their parents (∼3 h per week for 3–8 year olds) (7) and the influence of children's requests on family purchasing habits (7,8,9). A study by O'Dougherty et al. (7) found that 50% of children shopping in supermarkets with their parents initiated a request for specific foods, and that the majority of these requests were for sweets or snacks influenced by brand loyalty and marketing techniques. Additionally, Ebster et al. (8) found that children are more persuasive in their requests for food items in supermarkets if they are easily consumed (e.g., candy) or include giveaways such as toys. These studies illustrate the importance of the retail food store environment as a setting where families negotiate the influence of food and beverage marketing on purchasing practices that influence dietary behaviors. This also suggests that retail food stores might be an important component of novel and systematic approaches for tackling childhood obesity in the United States.
To build upon examinations of neighborhood food store environment characteristics that influence obesity, the goal of this study was to assess food marketing strategies targeted to youth in convenience/corner and grocery stores. Primary study objectives were to examine the extent to which foods marketed to youth on the internet and television are also available and marketed in retail food stores; and determine whether differences exist in the amount of marketing observed across store types and by neighborhood racial composition. We also explored whether assessments of food marketing strategies could be easily incorporated as part of comprehensive retail food store audits.
Methods and Procedures
This study was conducted as part of the STRONG (Synergistic Theory and Research on Obesity and Nutrition Group) Kids Project, which explores media effects on child obesity and health within family and community contexts (10). The study area for the STRONG Kids project includes four cities in Illinois with relatively high concentrations of African Americans (Decatur: 20.7%, Champaign: 15.8%, Urbana: 15.2%, Rantoul: 16.9%) compared to many small cities in the Midwestern United States (11). These cities also have much higher rates of poverty (e.g., Urbana: 27.4%) compared to the United States (12.4%) (11).
North American Industry Classification System codes were used to identify 143 grocery stores, convenience stores, fruit and vegetable markets, pharmacies and supercenters from a purchased InfoUSA database. However, only 118 stores were included in the final analysis due to refusals by store managers (N = 9) or stores not meeting our definitions based on field observations (N = 16). Stores were classified either as grocery stores (i.e., stores with both fresh produce and meat sections) or convenience/corner stores for data analysis. US 2000 census estimates (11) were used to designate stores as being in black or white neighborhoods (census block groups) if ≥40% of residents belonged to one group. While the threshold used in a previous study to categorize neighborhoods as black or white was ≥50% (12), 40% was used to ensure adequate sample size for comparison. The mean concentration of blacks in black neighborhoods was 53%, while the mean concentration of whites in white neighborhoods was 76%.
Audit instrument and data collection procedures
Adapted from an existing instrument by Chapman et al. (3), an audit tool was developed and tested for use in the study area. Seventy-eight items were included on the instrument, based on competitive media reports and a literature review of items commonly advertised to youth on television and the internet (4,6,13). Items were categorized as: (i) breads and pastries, (ii) breakfast cereals, (iii) candy and gum, (iv) chips, (v) cookies and crackers, (vi) dairy, (vii) fruit and cereal bars, (viii) ice cream, (ix) prepared foods, (x) sodas, and (xi) noncarbonated drinks. These items were then integrated with a validated audit tool that explores the availability and cultural relevance of fruits and vegetables for racial/ethnic minorities in food stores (12). Inter-rater reliability on the food marketing section ranged from 0.6 (substantial) to 1.0 (almost perfect). For the entire instrument, however, the inter-rater reliability was 0.81. Prior to data collection, store owners and managers were mailed letters explaining the purpose of the study, and provided the option to decline participation. The institutional review board at the University of Illinois designated the procedures for this study as exempt.
Availability was defined as the presence or absence of 78 items commonly marketed to youth on television or the internet. Marketing techniques were evaluated by assessing the packaging on food items for the presence of cartoon characters, nutrition claims, and tie-ins for children's movies and television shows. In addition, packaging was also assessed for taste claims (e.g., “yummy”), statements regarding convenience (e.g., “ready-to-eat pudding snacks”) and suggested use (e.g., “great as a lunchbox treat”), as well as the inclusion of toys or information on giveaways.
A marketing to availability (M:A) ratio was calculated to determine how often any seven marketing techniques were utilized when an item was available. χ2 tests were used to test for differences in the M:A ratio between store types and neighborhoods. Intraclass correlations showed no clustering to support multilevel analysis. SPSS version 16.0 (SPSS, Chicago, IL) was used to run all analyses.
Table 1 summarizes observations of availability and marketing of foods targeted to youth across store types and neighborhoods in our study. Convenience stores had the highest overall mean availability of items (87.2%), followed by stores located in black neighborhoods (86.1%), stores located in white neighborhoods (83.3%), and grocery stores (75.8%). Soda (92.6%) and ice cream (62.9%) were the most and least commonly available items across all stores.
Table 1. Availability and marketing of foods targeted to youth by store type and neighborhood racial composition
Grocery stores had the highest mean M:A ratio (57.5%), followed by stores in black neighborhoods (56.6%), stores in white neighborhoods (44.2%) and convenience stores (44.0%). Noncarbonated drinks (97.7%), fruit and cereal bars (76.9%), and soda (62.2%) were most likely to have some type of marketing technique across all stores.
The M:A ratio also showed that compared to convenience stores, grocery stores were significantly more likely to have marketing and promotions for breads and pastries (34.6% vs. 17.9%), breakfast cereals (52.0% vs. 22.9%), cookies and crackers (54.2% vs. 25.3%), dairy (70.8% vs. 42.7%), and ice cream (23.8% vs. 9.8%). Additionally, compared to stores located in white neighborhoods, stores located in black neighborhoods were more likely to have marketing for breads and pastries (35.7% vs. 17.1%), breakfast cereals (44.4% vs. 25.0%), and cookies and crackers (48.1% vs. 26.3%).
Although not presented in Table 1, across all stores, nutrition (92%) and taste (90%) claims were the most common. Tie-ins for television shows (72%) were observed more often than tie-ins for movies (63.5%), but this was not significantly different between store types or neighborhoods.
Foods commonly promoted to youth on television and the internet were often available and marketed in food stores examined for this study. Given estimates that some youth are exposed to more than 4000 advertisements via television per year, primarily for foods of poor nutritional content (1,14), the retail food store environment may conceivably reinforce preferences for energy dense foods. A study by Borradaille et al. (2009) for example, showed that urban elementary school children were most likely to purchase energy dense foods from corner stores (15), further bolstering the importance of food stores as sites for targeted childhood obesity interventions (e.g., working with stores to change the placement of certain items). Additionally, the observation that specific foods are more commonly marketed in stores located in black neighborhoods is also of particular concern. This finding suggests that youth residing in these neighborhoods have increased exposure to food marketing, in addition to limited healthy food options (12), thus placing them at higher risk for obesity.
Our study represents one of the few investigations of food marketing targeted to youth across various food store types and neighborhoods in the United States. As such, we were able to observe the influence of differences in store procurement sources on food marketing. Our success with incorporating food marketing items as part of a more comprehensive food store audit tool while still maintaining high inter-rater reliability, should encourage subsequent evaluations of the retail food store environment that account for the availability of healthful items in addition to food marketing cues.
We thank Amy Kunkel, Gerald Charleston, and Bala Mutyala for assistance with data collection. We also thank Kathy Chapman from the Cancer Council, Australia, for sharing her audit instrument. This study was supported by a grant from the Illinois Council for Agricultural Research and was conducted as part of the STRONG Kids project housed in the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This study was also supported by grant #66952 from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research and New Connections programs. We thank the reviewers for their comments.
The authors declared no conflict of interest.