Involving children in food marketing research

Posted on: 30 August 2023 by Professor Emma Boyland in August 2023 Posts

A group of five children sat in a line, all looking at their mobile phones.

Professor Emma Boyland is a Chair of Food Marketing and Child Health, in the Department of Psychology. Here Emma discusses the benefits of including children and young people in patient and public involvement and engagement (PPIE), as well as some of the challenges it presents.

The advertising and marketing of unhealthy food is everywhere – on TV, online and in apps, on billboards, at sports stadia and the cinema, to name just a few – and it influences what we eat, when, and how much. We are keen to advance understanding of how children and young people experience food marketing, how it affects their behaviour, and how we might use this evidence to inform policies and practices to better support their healthy development.

We are currently conducting two NIHR-funded projects on food marketing. One seeks to understand UK children’s typical current exposure to food marketing in different media and settings across the day. The other is exploring some evidence gaps around the impact of different types of marketing – e.g. where only the brand logo is shown, and not the food. In each case, our PPIE work with children and young people has been hugely important in helping us refine our research approaches and ensure we meet our objectives.

Unbeatable insight

The biggest area of growth and change in food marketing is in digital media – where advertising is increasingly personalised and targeted to those who are most likely to respond to it. Brands and advertisers know that young people are most likely to be the first to embrace technological developments, so they are a key target audience for digital marketers. There’s no better way to understand how and where children and young people are exposed to food marketing than to ask them!

It can be difficult for anyone to recall the food marketing they’ve seen, as it’s ubiquitous and designed to escape our conscious awareness. However, young people have often noticed forms of advertising that we would not otherwise have thought of – food brand Snapchat filters anyone? Our research design was directly informed by a discussion around experiences of repeated exposure to advertising for a particular fast food brand during the week driving a craving that was ultimately fulfilled on a trip to town at the weekend with friends. Rather than just measuring the immediate impact on purchasing behaviour, we need to be able to pick up these delayed effects.

Things to consider

Of course, working with young people requires a few additional considerations. All researchers running PPI sessions have the appropriate DBS check in place. We recruit for our youth PPI groups via contact with relevant guardians (e.g. parents) who were given information to enable them to discuss the opportunity with their child and ensure everyone was happy with the arrangements. It’s important to be inclusive. We vary the day and time of the online video calls (although always outside school hours), to ensure that no-one is prevented from taking part because they have another commitment (e.g., playing in a sports team). We make adjustments for young people with additional needs, for example, sending simplified materials through in advance and allowing anyone to make written comments in the chat if they prefer that (although we do our best to make sure everyone feels comfortable enough to speak up too). We value their time, and so all our young people are given an online shopping voucher as reimbursement for their time (and we made sure it was one they would be able to use and were happy with).

Ultimately, our PPIE activities with young people have definitely made our research better - and more fun!