By Darren Powell
It seems like not a day goes by when I read or hear about ‘junk food’ marketing and the effect this is having on ‘childhood obesity’. The dominant narrative tends to go like this: ‘Children today are too fat. Children’s over consumption of junk food is the main cause. The marketing of junk food is a significant part of the problem. Removing junk food marketing is an obvious solution.’
A number of countries across the Global North (such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand) have introduced regulatory controls on food and drink marketing that relates to ‘junk food’ – products deemed too high in fat, sugar and salt (also known as HFSS). (And when I say regulatory controls, in most cases this means self-regulation by the advertising industry.)
These controls take many forms, but often includes commitments by corporations and their advertisers to not advertise HFSS food or drink during children’s television programmes, not use brand generated characters (e.g. Ronald McDonald) or licensed TV/film characters (e.g. Dora the Explorer) on HFSS marketing, and not sponsor children’s sport with HFSS products.
Despite this now being a ‘common-sense’ approach to solving the ‘childhood obesity crisis’, I am not convinced that this will be healthy for children, fat or otherwise. My concern is that the demonization and pathologization of both ‘junk food’ advertisements and fat children, combined with the recent turn to regulating ‘junk food’ marketing to children, may have unhealthy consequences for children.
Stricter regulatory controls (or at least the threat of stricter regulations) and the public backlash against ‘junk food’ advertising has created a new opportunity for corporations and their advertisers: marketing healthy products and healthy lifestyles to children.
Indeed, it seems as though anti-obesity campaigners and politicians are fully onboard with the idea that replacing ‘unhealthy’ marketing with ‘healthy’ marketing is inherently healthy; that using the same marketing strategies as before (e.g. brand mascots, TV advertisements, sport sponsorship), but now to promote fruit, vegetables, milk, physical activity and healthy lifestyles, is widely positioned as a simple solution to children’s fat bodies and allegedly unhealthy behaviours. What is rarely critiqued though is the ways in which these so-called healthy marketing practices may impact children’s health knowledge, health practices, and health identities in potentially unhealthy ways.
We must first recognise that the term ‘health’ is not one thing for all people. Western views of health tend to privilege biomedical science, individualism, and the non-fat body. This narrow notion of health is also at play in the marketing of health to children, where advertising is positioned as only being unhealthy because it promotes a particular sort of food that ‘will’ make children fat or fatter. It is not the only perspective of health though.
In the New Zealand context, for instance, a unidimensional focus on tinana (physical dimension) as a main indicator of healthy food and healthy bodies does not align well with Māori perspectives of health and wellbeing that may also encompass wairua (spiritual), hinengaro (mental and emotional), and whānau (close and wider family), as well as te whenua (the land, identity and belonging), te reo (language), te taiao (the environment) and whanaungatanga (extended family and relationships).
For instance, from a physical health and ‘healthy marketing’ perspective, bananas may be considered healthy (not necessarily for all children though). However, as journalist Tess McClure reported, workers on banana plantations in the Philippines were “forced to work 18 hour days, paid as little as 30 cents per hour, constantly exposed to toxic chemicals, and threatened with violence or death when they campaign for better conditions.” If a child’s understanding of health is inextricably interconnected with multiple elements, such as the ethical production of food, bananas may actually be unhealthy.
In short, when policymakers and other stakeholder deem that health is primarily individualistic and physical, what is healthy for ‘others’ is ignored or even subjugated.
Furthermore, this current shift to ‘healthy’ marketing may also silence strong arguments that all advertising and marketing – whether for food, toys, or clothes– is potentially ‘unhealthy’ for children.
A number of critics of the ‘corporate assault’ on children share a concern that as children are increasingly targeted as consumers, their experiences of childhood may be diminished. How children see themselves and others in terms of class, culture, gender, sexuality, health and worth are being re-shaped by advertising; their identities re-aligned with the goals of neoliberalism, capitalism and corporations. The child-citizen is now imagined as the child-consumer.
Given that Westernised views of health dominate public health imperatives and children’s understanding of health, it is necessary to examine how the marketing of ‘health’ may ignore or even colonise the health knowledge, practices and identities of ‘others’.
Academics and advocates need to continue to search for means to challenge taken-for-granted assumptions that ‘fat is bad’ and ‘healthy marketing is good’ for all children. We need to pay closer attention to how advertising – all advertising – may be ‘dangerous’. And we need to continue to illuminate the ways in which marketing policies and practices may have unintended, even unhealthy, consequences for all children.
Darren Powell is a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Education and Social Work, University of Auckland, New Zealand. He is a recent recipient of a Royal Society Te Apārangi Marsden Fund Fast-Start Grant to conduct a research project about the impact of marketing ‘health’ to children.
 McClure, T. (2016). Banana Republic: the ugly story behind New Zealand’s most popular fruit. Retreived from https://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/checkpoint/audio/201808688/banana-republic-the-ugly-story-behind-new-zealand’s-most-popular-fruit