Recipe for success

Image of children shopping

Branding strategies adopted by fast food companies in the marketing of junk food to children should be used to promote healthy alternatives, proposes Associate Professor Teresa Davis, from the University of Sydney Business School.

“In new media marketing, lines are blurred between the social and commercial in ways we have never seen before,” says Associate Professor Davis.

As consumers, children’s economic power comes close to rivalling that of the adults who raise them. They form a lucrative current market, an influence market as well as a future adult market, she says. Marketers see an opportunity to cement enduring brand loyalty.

Associate Professor Davis’ research has found that new marketing platforms paired with young children’s increased access to technological devices, has created an environment conducive to strategic, subtle and powerful product placements. She argues that this exposure to a fusillade of brand images is particularly potent as children do not process such placements through an analytical or critical lens.

“Children interact with the games and applications in a ‘flow’ state, allowing companies to use brand integration to influence children’s perceptions while their cognitive defences are down,” she says. “They are unable to critically comprehend the messages which are essentially one-sided conversations with marketers.”

Associate Professor Davis emphasises that this is particularly acute in the marketing of junk foods and has found that the parental and societal framing of high sugar and high fat foods confronted children with mixed messages. “Junk food is often framed as a reward, linked to good behaviours and happiness, while healthy food is seen as mundane and almost medicinal. Despite parental influence, the effect of peer reference groups and advertising endorsement, particularly through exposure to brand placements ‘naturally’ embedded in media, are key influences in determining children’s decisions.”

Associate Professor Davis’ research has suggested that advocates of healthy lifestyles can learn some powerful lessons from commercial marketers about successfully promoting healthy food, through ‘branding’ style promotion and utilising new media to broadcast widespread messages in favour of sensible alternatives.

“Junk food is often framed as a reward, linked to good behaviours and happiness, while healthy food is seen as mundane and almost medicinal"

“There needs to be a profound change to the strategies used to brand healthy food. Just as fast food companies promote their products in the digital space, there is scope to endorse the idea of a healthy lifestyle through similar methods, which research has shown is equally as effective in catalysing behavioural change in children. For example, existing research has shown that incorporating cartoon characters into the marketing of vegetables can greatly change the perceptions of children.

“Furthermore, my research has cast light on not only how children perceive healthy eating, but the most effective rewards systems. Increased acknowledgement of collective rewards, to which children respond exceptionally well, can be efficiently leveraged to incentivise and encourage healthy eating within classrooms and educational contexts.”

Business School research, such as that conducted by Associate Professor Davis, resonates with the University’s vision of multidisciplinary solutions to complex health problems through research, which extends beyond the bounds of science and medicine. This initiative is exemplified by the recently unveiled Charles Perkins centre, a unique and innovative integration of education and world-class research which seeks practical solutions in areas of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease. A member of the Charles Perkins’ Resource Allocation Advisory Committee, Associate Professor Davis is one of a number of leading business school academics whose research is affiliated with the centre.

Professor Davis highlighted that the paradigm shift in research towards pluri-disciplinary collaboration in the area of health and children can bring practical and progressive developments. “Medical sciences form a solid foundation of research, from which psychology, the social sciences and marketers can add new dimensions to overall understanding. In the context of consumption, social marketers have valuable skills in terms of changing consumption behaviour.”

“Research always enables change,” she says. “In resolving the issues surrounding food marketing and children, there needs to be a will of government, commercial enterprises and consumers themselves to be the momentum that drives that change.”