• Open Access

Using a research framework to identify knowledge gaps in research on food marketing to children in Australia

Authors


Correspondence to: Kathy Chapman, Cancer Council NSW, PO Box 572, Kings Cross NSW 1340. Fax: (02) 8302 3530; e-mail: kathyc@nswcc.org.au

Abstract

Objective: Research in the field of food marketing to children requires a better understanding of the research gaps in order to inform policy development. The purpose of this paper was to propose a framework for classifying food marketing research, using Australian research on food marketing to children to demonstrate how this framework can be used to determine knowledge gaps.

Approach: A literature review of research databases and ‘grey’ material was conducted to identify research from the previous 10 years. Studies were classified according to their research focus, and media type, as either: exposure, including content analyses; effects of exposure, including opinions, attitudes and actions resulting from food marketing exposure; regulations, including the type and level of regulation that applies to food marketing; or breaches of regulations, including instances where marketing regulations have been violated.

Conclusion: The majority of Australian research on food marketing to children has focused on television advertising and exposure research. Research has consistently shown that the content of food marketing directed at children is predominately for unhealthy foods. There is a lack of research on the effects of food marketing, which would be valuable to inform policy.

Implications: The development of a logical framework for food marketing research allows for the identification of research gaps and enables research priorities to be identified.

Restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy food to children have been proposed as a necessary ingredient for change in the prevention of obesity,1 and are also likely to be a cost-effective strategy,2 as part of a comprehensive approach.

Systematic reviews have found that food marketing influences children's food preferences, purchase requests and food consumption.3–5 The public health impact of this marketing is of concern as advertised foods are typically the antithesis of dietary recommendations5 and, as a result, marketing impedes the ability of parents and government programs to promote healthy eating. Research and policy groups require a better understanding of the causal pathway connecting food marketing and children's diet-related health outcomes. It is widely understood that this pathway involves at least four major strands (see column headings in Table 1). There are many moderating and mediating factors, such as social norms, culture and home environment, that effect children's exposure to food marketing and the impact of marketing on children's food related behaviours.

Table 1.  The availability of Australian research for each research level and media type.
Media typeExposureEffects of exposureRegulationsBreaches of regulationsa
  1. Notes: a) Not applicable (NA) as no statutory regulations apply

  2. ✗= no studies available

  3. ✓= studies available

Television6–9,31–3310–1516,176,18,19
Internet20,21NA
Print media22NA
Promotions21,23NA
Place24,25NA
PriceNA
Packaging23NA
Product expansionNA
Public relations and sponsorshipsNA

The purpose of this paper was to propose a framework for classifying food marketing research that encompasses questions related to children's exposure to food marketing, the various outcomes of children's food marketing exposure; and the potential impact of the regulatory environment on children's exposure outcomes. We apply this framework to existing Australian literature on food marketing research, to exemplify how this framework can be used to determine gaps in knowledge, in order to guide future priorities and inform policy.

Methods

Literature review

A literature review was conducted between February and September 2008, and comprised a search of medical, business and marketing databases. Search terms included ‘food’, ‘promotion’, ‘advertising’, ‘marketing’ and ‘children’. Further searches were performed for specific media, and reference lists were reviewed. An additional search was conducted using ‘grey’ material, including web-listed reports and discussion with experts in the field. The focus was on Australian research conducted in the previous 10 years.

Research classification

A framework was developed for classifying research. Studies were classified according to their major research focus, as either:

  • Exposure: content analyses of media types;
  • Effects of exposure: opinions, attitudes and actions as a result of food marketing;
  • Regulations: the type and level of regulation that applies to food marketing; and
  • Breaches of regulations: instances where marketing regulations have been violated.

Where studies encompassed more than one of these components, they were recorded as such.

Studies were also classified according to media type, including:

  • Broadcast media: television, cinema and radio;
  • New technology: the Internet and SMS/text messaging;
  • Print media: magazines and newspapers;
  • Promotions: including premium offers such as competitions and give aways, promotional characters, such as celebrities, cartoon characters and sports figures, health and nutrient claims, and product placements;
  • Place: school canteens and vending machines, sporting events, supermarkets and outdoor advertising near these settings;
  • Price: where products are sold at lower prices to make them more available to children;
  • Packaging: that is appealing to children;
  • Product expansion: selling multiple package sizes and flavour variations of a product; and
  • Public relations and sponsorships: sponsorship of television programs and sporting events, fund-raising and establishing or donating money to charity.

These marketing media were described broadly as two categories; broadcast advertising and non-broadcast media marketing.

Results

Existing Australian research on food marketing to children

Table 1 outlines current Australian research on food marketing to children. The majority of research has focused on television advertising, and children's exposure to food marketing.

Broadcast media marketing: exposure

Television

The largest Australian study to measure the frequency of television food advertising to children assessed 645 hours of television data (2005).6 Unhealthy food advertisements contributed to 82% of all food advertisements.6

These findings are supported by later studies7,8 which assessed food advertising on Sydney commercial television (357 hours), using a more conservative food classification system. The frequency of unhealthy food advertisements were consistently highest during programs most popular with children, as determined by television audience data. In 2006, during the 20 most popular children's programs, 66% of food advertisements were for unhealthy foods, compared to 42% during programs most popular with adults.8 In 2007, 73% of food advertisements during popular children's programs were for unhealthy foods.7

These data were also assessed for the use of persuasive marketing techniques, including promotional characters and premium offers.9 The frequency of food advertisements with promotional characters was twice as high, and those with premium offers were 18 times higher, during children's popular programs, compared to the programs most popular with adults. Overall, the majority of advertisements containing persuasive marketing were for unhealthy foods.9

Broadcast media marketing: effects of exposure

Television

Six studies have examined the effects of television food advertising exposure; these all related to opinions, attitudes and perceptions. In 2007, a random, nationwide telephone survey of 400 parents found 86% supported a ban on unhealthy food advertising during times when children watch television.10 Findings from this survey are consistent with other cross-sectional surveys relating to adults' views on television food advertising to children.11,12 As well, qualitative research in the form of focus groups with both parents and children has concluded that food marketing is a pervasive influence on children's food preferences and purchase requests.13,14 One quantitative research study using an experimental design looked at the effects of television advertisements for unhealthy foods versus healthy foods on children's food attitudes and preferences.15 The strongest evidence to support an effect of food advertising occurred in relation to the healthy food advertisements, with positive attitudinal changes towards healthy foods seen in response to exposure to healthy food advertisements.

There have been no Australian intervention studies that directly measure the effects of advertising on children's purchasing or food consumption behaviours.

Broadcast media marketing: regulations

Television

A study that applied different regulatory scenarios to television advertising data, found that relatively simple regulatory changes could potentially have a large impact on children's exposure to unhealthy food advertising.16 These regulatory scenarios considered variations in the timing and volume of food advertisements, and the types of foods permitted to be advertised. The most effective regulatory scenario was a restriction of unhealthy food advertisements between 7am and 8.30pm daily. Under this scenario, exposure to unhealthy food advertisements would be reduced by 80%.

More recently, the broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, undertook economic modelling of regulatory approaches for television food advertising to children.17 Regulatory options were based on the timing of food advertisements and the type of food advertisements permitted; and modelling predominately focused on potential revenue loss for broadcasters. As expected, revenue loss increased for restrictions on all food advertisements, as opposed to only unhealthy food advertisements, and when regulations were enforced for extended broadcast periods.17

Further, an experimental study, which assessed the impact of varying combinations of television advertisements for unhealthy and healthy foods on children's dietary knowledge, attitudes and intentions, simulated possible models for regulating television food advertising to children. Increasing the number of healthy food advertisements seen by children promoted more positive attitudes toward healthy foods, irrespective of whether unhealthy food advertisements were broadcast concurrently.15 The authors suggest that a regulatory model that encouraged a more equal distribution of healthy and unhealthy food advertisements may assist in the promotion of healthy eating to children.15

Broadcast media marketing: breaches of regulations

Television

Three Australian studies have found major and repeated breaches of the Children's Television Standards (CTS),6,18,19 the statutory regulations governing television advertising to children.

In one study that analysed 63 hours of children's television programming in Adelaide (2001), 31% of food advertisements broadcast during children's programs, were found to be in breach of CTS 20.2a, which states that premium offers must be incidental to the product or service being advertised.18

In another study examining 645 hours of television (2005), a total 194 breaches of the CTS were identified, of which 78% related to CTS 20.2a.6 Ten per cent of breaches related to advertisements containing misleading information and 2% were related to advertisements implying the food would make children superior to their peers.6

Finally, in a study examining 357 hours of Sydney commercial television (2006), 14 breaches of CTS 16 were observed.19 CTS 16 refers to the frequency of food advertisements, and stipulates that food advertisements must be shown no more than twice per 30-minute period. Most breaches (80%) were for advertisements promoting unhealthy foods.19

Non-broadcast media marketing: exposure

Internet

An analysis of 196 popular children's websites, based on industry ratings data, and 119 food manufacturers' websites was conducted to determine the nature and extent of Internet food marketing.20 Marketing techniques included branded education (79% of websites), competitions (34%), promotional characters (35%), downloadable items (35%), branded games (29%) and designated children's sections (22%).20

For popular children's websites, all references to food and beverage products, including both branded/paid advertising, as well as non-branded references were assessed. Food references on popular children's websites were significantly skewed towards unhealthy foods (61% vs. 39% healthy foods), and comprised three times more branded references for unhealthy foods.20

Research by Choice, an Australian consumer organisation, has also examined the use of Internet marketing, including the use of branded games, electronic cards, downloadable items and viral marketing.21

Print media

The first study to assess the nature and extent of food marketing in children's magazines involved the assessment of 16 popular children's magazine titles reviewed over a 12-month period (n = 76).22 Food references were significantly skewed towards unhealthy foods (64% vs. 36% healthy foods).22

Promotions/packaging

A study on the extent of packaging promotions in Australian supermarkets found that in seven food product categories, between 9% and 35% of products used either promotional characters or premium offers.23 Further, 82% of food promotions were for unhealthy foods.23

Research by Choice has further described the use of on-pack promotions, including the use of children's characters, movie tie-ins, competitions and giveaways.21

Place

An analysis of food advertising around 40 primary schools in the Sydney and Wollongong areas was conducted in 2007.24 Food advertisements were skewed towards unhealthy foods (80% of food advertisements), and were concentrated in areas closest to schools (115 food advertisements per km2 >250 m from schools vs. 59 per km2 >250 m and <500 m from schools).24

Research has also examined the extent of unhealthy food at supermarket checkouts in Melbourne (n = 24), and found that the majority of checkouts displayed chocolate (87%), chewing gum (81%) and other confectionery (80%).25

Discussion

To date, the majority of Australian research on food marketing to children has focused on commercial television advertising. This focus is also apparent internationally, with a recognised lack of information available about food marketing to children through non-broadcast media.5 While the proposed framework may produce a different pattern of research activity when applied internationally or to different settings, the use of this framework in relation to Australian research highlights its applicability and potential to highlight gaps within this research field.

Research has consistently shown that children are exposed to high levels of television food advertising, and that the majority of these advertisements are for unhealthy foods. This trend is also evident for other non-broadcast media, where data is available. Of concern is that these other non-broadcast forms of marketing are relatively unregulated, covered mainly by industry self regulation.26 The effect of television food advertising is likely to be reinforced by children's recurring exposure to commercial food messages via non-broadcast media.

The lack of Australian research on the effects of food marketing is noteworthy, and would be valuable to guide policy. As evidenced from international research, associations exist between television food advertising and food preferences and consumption,27 with advanced studies examining the effects of children's exposure to food marketing being carried out in the UK28,29 and the Netherlands.27 Adapting this research to the Australian context would help to affirm uncertainties that food marketing is associated with children's food behaviours.

The development of a logical framework for food marketing research allows for better identification of research gaps; prevents duplication of research; shifts the issue of food marketing to children beyond television; and informs decision making for priority research and intervention areas. Previous literature reviews relating to this issue have addressed each of these framework components either singularly or in combination, for example Hastings and colleagues examined the promotional channels used to target children and how children respond to this marketing,5 while other reviews have focused on food marketing regulations.30 It is important to examine the research at each layer of the causal pathway in order to develop a clear view of how food is marketed to children, and how this in turn affects them.

While it is important to recognise the research gaps highlighted in this paper, not all may be equally compelling as research priorities. Priorities can be determined by explicit criteria, which in this area could include:

  • scientific significance: the significance in providing information to determine policy directions;
  • advocacy value: the anticipated persuasiveness and impact on media, community members, industry and politicians' commitment to make policy changes;
  • policy opportunity: that provide timely and feasible recommendations and are likely to contribute given specific social, political and organisational factors; and
  • media reach and impact: media or promotional settings with the largest children's audience are a higher priority.

Taking account of these considerations, some examples of priority areas for research on food marketing to children in Australia include food related sponsorships of children's sports (exposure); consumer responses to specific marketing (effects of exposure); and more detailed policy research, such as modelling of impacts and costs of policy options (regulation).

Ancillary