Countries like Brazil and Sweden already ban all marketing to children and now research is under way in New Zealand to investigate whether advertising of "healthy" food and beverage products could be damaging to youngsters.
University of Auckland lecturer in health education Dr Darren Powell is leading the year-long study which will see a group of children wearing cameras to record what "healthy" marketing they are exposed to in their daily lives and how it affects them.
The research is just beginning and Powell is at pains to underline there are no findings yet – but says his research is covering new ground.
While Brazil, Sweden and Canada (particularly Quebec) have taken a legislative stand on marketing all food and beverage products to children, Powell says governments and the food and beverage industry, globally and here in New Zealand, have taken a softer approach.
"The industry often rejects claims that their multi-million-dollar, child-focused advertising campaigns cause harm by saying they do not negatively affect children's consumption. Now, however, that same industry is re-inventing itself as part of the solution to children's ill health," he says.
"On the surface, it looks as though corporations are promoting healthy lifestyles and products but they are also creating and profiting from a new market – promoting 'health' to children.
"But there is little research here or anywhere which looks at whether or how marketing healthy products and lifestyles affects children's health identities and knowledge, including the ways it may have unhealthy consequences for children."
Places like Quebec have shown how restricting advertising to children is effective. Heart & Stroke, a Canadian health charity, said in their report on Canadian health last year that Quebec legislation, in place for 30 years, had been associated with a 13 per cent drop in the decision to buy fast food. Quebec's children had highest rate of fruit and vegetable consumption.
In New Zealand, one recent study using cameras showed more than 160 children in the Wellington region were exposed to junk food marketing on an average of 27 times a day.
But while restricting or banning marketing might pay dividends for unhealthy products, isn't marketing healthy products to children less of an issue?
Powell says: "Some research shows children are being conditioned to believe good health is simply about listening to advertising and consuming the right products.
"Children's understanding of health may be altered because of marketing and may result in a move away from traditional, cultural or holistic notions of wellbeing towards a corporate version of what is healthy for children.
"Ultimately, we need to consider who should be teaching children about health."
In Canada and many other markets, the "nag factor" from kids to parents helps to shape food and beverage choices.
In addition, food and beverage companies are sponsoring sports events and providing free educational resources to schools, as well as sports equipment, posters and other methods of inserting themselves and their products as a healthy part of a child's daily life.
However, it may be that children interpret health messages from "healthy" marketing in unintended ways, Powell says. Studies here and overseas have shown certain types of health promotion can have a negative impact, especially when it results in kids excessively focusing on body size, eating and exercise behaviours, and judging their own and others' health and bodies.
Some studies are also showing that children are becoming increasingly dissatisfied with their bodies at a younger age than ever before; some marketing may increase anxiety about being healthy or looking so.
"That's part of what we will be looking into," says Powell, whose study will involve 16 primary school-age children from different walks of life who will be monitored closely by him and a research assistant. Their wearable cameras will record what they see and do when the researchers are not there.
Powell and the assistant will get to know the children, their friends and family in close circumstances, often breakfasting with them, for example, going to their sports games and mixing closely with the family over a full year.
Even if New Zealand authorities do not make similar legislative decisions to Brazil, Sweden and Canada, the research may also highlight whether there is a need to educate children and parents to become more critical consumers – trained to recognise stealthy marketing strategies and tactics such as sponsorship, product placement and so-called educational, health-promoting programmes.
"My own son, then five years old, knew why there was a drink logo on his rugby ball when I asked him," says Powell. "He said it was because the company wanted him to buy the drink involved.
"But not all kids nor parents will be aware of what is going on – or care. That is one thing I want to achieve in this research: showing children and adults why we should care about the effects of advertising to children, especially when it is promoted or understood as healthy. "