Dr Stoneham writes:
Being a parent of two young children, I was often required to do my grocery shopping with the kids in tow. I remember one particular episode where my daughter, who was three at the time, had finished munching on the apple I had given her and was sitting in the shopping trolley child seat. I was trying to complete the shopping as fast as humanly possible to avoid my daughter seeing items which she felt she could not live without. However, my luck had run out on this day. I heard a scream of pure delight as she laid her eyes on a pink, stuffed unicorn toy which was in the bull’s eye zone. After a small battle of wills, I did what most parents do and gave in to the power of the pester.
So I was relieved to read that a recent study by the Cancer Council NSW and the University of Newcastle, published in the journal Health Promotion International, confirmed just how tough it is for parents to stand up to pester power.
This study, led by Sarah Campbell from the University of Newcastle aimed to determine the prevalence of children’s food requests, and parents’ experiences of food marketing directed towards children in the supermarket environment. A total of 159 parents were either recruited at supermarkets in the greater Newcastle area and invited to participate in an interview, or were part of a focus group/interview held at local schools. The questions parents were asked included how often their child requests food or drink items when shopping, whether this occurred during the most recent shopping trip, if an item requested was purchased and why, and the parents perception of the healthiness of the item requested.
The study identified that nearly three-quarters of the parents said they were pestered by their children into buying food, and of those who were pestered, 70% gave in and bought at least one food item. Unsurprisingly, what they were most frequently pestered for were not healthy foods but chocolates and confectionery. This fact is supported by a University of Sheffield study which found that nine in ten items at the check-outs of supermarket convenience stores are considered ‘very unhealthy’ with the vast majority of these being chocolate treats stacked on shelves at one metre and below, which is directly in the eye-line of a 3-5 year old child!
In the Campbell study, a total of 145 different food items were requested, with the most common requests being chocolate or confectionery (40%), followed by cakes and biscuits (12%). Of parents whose child had requested a food item, 81 (70%) decided to purchase at least one of the items requested. A survey in the UK identified that parents spend an average of £460 a year on things they do not need after giving in to the pestering of their children.
In the Australian study, parents expressed strong beliefs about what influenced their children’s food requests in the supermarket environment. The two key influencers were product packaging including the colours, branding and characters, and brand recognition. Parents advised that brand recognition occurred from a very young age, with children asking for products that had a favourite television or movie character on the front and even knowing the colours of certain brands. Parents believed the layout of the supermarket, in terms of product placement and visibility, also had an influence on their children requesting foods. Seeing certain food items placed at child friendly heights and dealing with the checkout were identified as challenges.
Parents offered ideas on how to minimise pestering including being consistent in their response to requests for foods, pacifying the child with a food/drink item whilst shopping, giving them some choice in the food (e.g. picking the shape of pasta) and occasionally giving them a treat or reward. They also advised they would avoid shopping with their children when possible. A study in the UK found that when it came to parental defences, half of the parents questioned said they told a child they could not afford a particular item, while one in five distracted their child with a snack. Surprisingly, one in eight (13%) went so far as to promise their child their desired item – but never bought it, which is an interesting strategy to address the FOMO (fear of missing out) phenomena.
Food marketing is nothing new, but marketing techniques have become very sophisticated and clever. There are promotional signs at eye level, confectionery within easy reach at the checkout and colourful packages with cute characters that align with the latest release movie. We know that food marketing successfully influences children – their food preferences, the food they eat and which foods they pester their parents to buy. With almost a quarter of Australian children overweight or obese, this is just another area where public health advocacy needs to remain vigilant.
Article: A mixed methods examination of food marketing directed towards children in Australian supermarkets. Sarah Campbell, Erica James, Fiona Stacey, Jennifer Bowman, Kathy Chapman and Bridget Kelly. Health Promotion International, Vol 29, No 2; 267 – 277.
The Public Health Advocacy Institute WA (PHAIWA) JournalWatch service reviews 10 key public health journals on a monthly basis, providing a précis of articles that highlight key public health and advocacy related findings, with an emphasis on findings that can be readily translated into policy or practice.