Doctor of Philosophy
School of Health and Society
Background Children live in a media-saturated environment, as the unsolicited recipients of powerful food marketing coercion. Their aptitude in digital communications, paired with their natural credulity, lack of cognitive defences and inexperience, makes children the most desirable demographic available to marketers. Marketing techniques used to promote unhealthy foods are sophisticated, persistent and influence food attitudes, preference and consumption – outcomes that are all included in a Hierarchy of Effects sequence of effects that link food promotions to individual-level weight outcomes. Childhood obesity undermines the physical, social and psychological well-being of children and is a known risk factor for adult obesity and many non-communicable diseases. As such, the highest levels of international policy setting have prioritised the restricting of food marketing to children as a population-based intervention to alleviate noncommunicable diseases by 2025.
A perceived lack of evidence that food marketing can directly contribute to childhood obesity currently impedes policy change. A critical appraisal of the evidence identified gaps in knowledge that require further assessment; specifically, more evidence was required to address the impacts of food marketing on children’s explicit and implicit cognitive processes. The methodologies used to measure this were limited, thus there was a need to conduct research with children in exploratory and innovative ways. Secondly, the body of evidence required more research of the modern marketing techniques, such as those used in digital marketing, so research synchronises with the contemporaneous techniques used to interact with children.
Aim The research presented in this thesis explored the impact of unhealthy food and drink marketing on children’s implicit and explicit brand attitudes and preferences. Specifically, the research aimed to implement new research methodologies and explore the impact of exposure to modern advertising techniques (with a focus on those used in online gaming contexts).
Methods Three research studies explored the explicit (Study One) and implicit (Studies Two and Three) impacts of unhealthy food marketing in children aged 7-12 years. Study One (n = 52) examined an explicit response using a qualitative child-centered methodology, and innovatively used participant-developed stimuli. Interviews explored the marketing landscape and the appeal of persuasive food marketing techniques from a child’s perspective. Study Two (n = 48) sought to identify the presence of an implicit relationship between children and their favourite food brands (photograph stimuli provided by the participants). A physiological methodology measured arousal - electrodermal activity (EDA). Study Three (n = 156), a randomised controlled trial, used an online game to explore the impact of different advertising techniques that are commonly paired with games children play. The advertising techniques included banner advertising, advergames, and rewarded video advertising, used to promote an unfamiliar confectionary brand.
Findings Study One demonstrated persuasive techniques used to market unhealthy foods to children successfully engaged with and influenced them. The children identified the techniques most appealing to children their age and had clearly internalised and understood these marketing techniques, as they could apply them creatively to hypothetically market similar products. The key themes that emerged included: use of characters, place of exposure, fun, self-identity and branded jargon.
Study Two revealed children were significantly more aroused by branded images of their favourite food and beverage products than by the unbranded counterparts (i.e. the same products without the packaging) (F(1, 47) = 4.37, p = .042). The arousal response to the branded products did not statistically differ to the arousal response to photographs of children’s family and friends. This finding indicated the children had made strong relationships with their favourite brands, similar to the other strong relationships in their lives.
Finally, Study Three highlighted the persuasive techniques used to promote an unfamiliar food brand in an online gaming context were influential on children’s attitudes and preferences. Children who were exposed to the rewarded video advertising chose the test brand significantly more than children in the other three conditions (p < 0.002). Condition did not influence overall energy intake measured in grams (p = 0.78) or kcals (p = 0.46). The children were significantly aware of advertising in the rewarded advertising condition, whereas they were not significantly aware of advertising in the other conditions, which did not influence children’s attitudes and behaviour.
Significance and contribution to knowledge Study One made a valuable contribution to the body of evidence by bringing children’s perspectives into conversations about policies that impact them the most. As children are a central focus of the obesity crisis, it is critical to understand the effects of accumulative and long-term exposure to marketing outside of experimental research and to explore children’s real-life experiences with food brands.
This was the first study to the researcher’s knowledge to use participantdeveloped stimuli to explore the impacts of food marketing, which is vital to explore the broader interaction with children and the unhealthy food marketing landscape. The findings contribute new evidence and insights into the psychological power of everyday marketing exposures and identify the marketing techniques children find most appealing. This explicit detail is essential as the findings can serve as a guide to identifying pertinent techniques as foci of regulation to restrict food marketing.
Study Two is the first study to the researcher’s knowledge to measure children’s preference for a branded food product versus the product in its ‘unbranded state’ (unpackaged), using physiological methodology – a methodology less prone to bias. This study revealed children have an implicit response to their favourite brands. This implicit arousal response was stronger than an arousal response to the same product unpackaged but similar to an arousal response to images of their friends and family. Research would suggest unpackaged food is perceived as more accessible, directly appetitive and has previously shown better physiological appetitive responses than packaged products. This implies that children have developed deep, implicit connections with their favourite food and drink brands, which exist independently of the actual food product, and that have developed through the power of marketing.
Study Three addressed the need to explore the impacts of contemporary advertising techniques used in online gaming contexts. Research previous focused solely on the impact of advergames but not the impacts of other types of advertisements in gaming contexts. A randomised controlled trial was conducted and the marketing techniques most influential children’s attitudes and preferences were identified. This study highlighted children’s brand attitudes and choices were influenced by the delivery of brand messages using highly sophisticated advertising techniques, in addition to simple exposure to a brand. In an era of increasing digital and mobile game use, this study indicated an awareness of advertising is insufficient to protect children, as they remain vulnerable to the effects of advertisements. Rewarded video advertising has not been investigated before in academic research on children’s food behaviours. These findings suggest it should be a high priority for effective marketing regulation interventions.
Overall, the findings reported from the three studies emphasise the power of food marketing and highlight the need for stricter regulation on the extent and power of food marketing to children. This research adds a significant contribution to the evidence supporting the need for legislation to limit unhealthy food marketing to help protect children.
Smith, Rachel Elizabeth, Exploring the impact of unhealthy food and drink marketing on children’s implicit and explicit brand attitudes and preferences, Doctor of Philosophy thesis, School of Health and Society, University of Wollongong, 2019. https://ro.uow.edu.au/theses1/930
Unless otherwise indicated, the views expressed in this thesis are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the University of Wollongong.