Boy in supermarket aisle with trolley

How does advertising affect children’s food choices?

From television adverts during family programmes to cartoon characters on cereal boxes and now social media feeds, canny marketeers have long targeted young people as a way to sell their products.

Any parent can tell you that their children are bombarded with adverts, marketing and all kinds of overt (and covert) stimuli that look to influence their food choices. With UK children consistently among the most obese and overweight in Europe, it’s barely worth disputing it works. The question is how can we understand the impact of new forms of marketing, as it slowly migrates to the online world of social media influencers.

“My research focuses on the food environment, particularly the influence of food marketing and advertising,” says Dr Emma Boyland from the University of Liverpool. “I look at what factors affect children’s choices of what they eat, how much and when.”

For example, she undertook research to find out if characters on snack products affected children’s perception of the taste. It did, and it didn’t even matter if characters were switched between brands -- children still preferred to eat the character-branded foods. The use of such child-centric marketing is now banned in Chile.

But this type of research is becoming much harder. The old days of just asking children what they watch on TV and what they eat are gone. With the shift from TV to digital advertising, a 30-second promotion is now more closely integrated into online content, such as computer games, and social media feeds and pages with downloadable content. “A lot of the work we’re doing is trying to capture accurate data on what the child is seeing because it’s behaviourally targeted,” Boyland explains. “What I see is not what the child sees, so first we have to work out what they are exposed to before we think about what regulations should be applied.”

Boyland’s research has taken her into the new phenomenon of social media influencers, who until recently were often hiding the fact that their product endorsements were paid for by manufacturers. Using a well-known photo uploading site popular with teens, Boyland and colleagues swapped out images of healthy and unhealthy food with a top male and female influencer. Results showed that children seeing influencers with unhealthy snacks significantly increased their overall intake compared to seeing the influencers with non-food products. In addition, influencers with healthy snacks did not affect intake, demonstrating again the power of celebrity in modifying our actions.

Her expertise has led to Boyland taking part in UK Government consultations, such as one to restrict children’s exposure to junk food adverts that concluded June 2019. She has also taken part in two major published childhood obesity inquiries by the Health and Social Care Select Committee, where she has twice been called as an expert witness and argued the case for stricter regulations on food marketing. This work and message has been picked and amplified by UK, European and global NGOs and health charities and led to further collaborations with organisations with food and diet-related agendas, such as the 2018 ‘See it, want it, buy it, eat it’ report with Cancer Research UK and ongoing research with the Wellcome Trust.

Boyland says that the University of Liverpool, where she works in the Institute of Population Health Sciences’ Appetite and Obesity group, fosters an excellent working environment. “We have an excellent collaborative obesity public health community across the city,” she says, citing the work with the north-west’s Food Active healthy weight programme that aims to reduce people’s consumption of sugary fizzy drinks.

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