Portable cameras have revealed how our kids are exposed to junk food advertisements nearly 30 times each day, fuelling concerns over how marketing might be contributing to New Zealand's childhood obesity epidemic.
Now, in a first-of-its-kind study, researchers want to use the same child's-eye-view approach to measure the impact of exposure to "healthy" marketing.
"Global concerns about childhood obesity and the negative effects of marketing junk food have created a new opportunity for corporations - the marketing of healthy products and lifestyles to children," said University of Auckland researcher Dr Darren Powell, who is leading the study.
"Whilst there is a large body of literature examining the relationship between unhealthy food marketing and childhood obesity, relatively little is known about how the rapid turn to marketing healthy products and lifestyles influences children."
Indeed, he said, there was concern that some of the marketing messages that children receive about how to be healthy - especially those relating to bodies - may actually be rather unhealthy for children.
His study, supported with a $300,000 Marsden Fund grant, follows work by New Zealand researchers that involved tracking the everyday perspectives of kids through cameras mounted around their necks.
One recent study, drawing on footage from more than 160 children in the Wellington region, showed the kids were seeing an average 27 pieces of junk food advertisements every day.
THE 'COCA-COLONISATION' OF HEALTH
In this project, 16 children from two schools, and aged between 7 and 9, would also use wearable cameras over a year to collect images from homes, schools, and sports clubs.
Powell and colleagues will also be interviewing the children's friends, family, teachers, coaches and others to ultimately create a rich picture of how marketing healthy products and lifestyles shapes children's knowledge and behaviour.
"This includes a critical examination of the 'Coca-Colonisation' of health - how 'other' ways of understanding health may be created, maintained, or overpowered by contemporary marketing policies and practices."
Powell, a former primary school teacher who now lectures in curriculum and pedagogy, said current literature tended to oversimplify and overstate the relationship between marketing and health, suggesting that junk food marketing was bad for children's health, and that healthy marketing was good.
"There is a large body of literature that correlates unhealthy food and drink advertising with poor health outcomes for children," he said.
"There is also a developing focus on the ways that common marketing practices, the various strategies used to develop or promote a product in order to increase consumption, can be employed to improve children attitudes, behaviours and health."
Yet, he said, there was a distinct lack of research that challenged the assumption that marketing healthy products and lifestyles by companies - whether fast food chains or sportswear makers and weight-loss products - was inherently healthy.
The inspiration for his study came when he was watching a children's TV programme with his son, Harvey, several years ago.
"An advertisement appeared for a certain fast restaurant, promoting wraps, sliced apples and bottled water, rather than burgers," he said.
"And I immediately thought: this still isn't right. And how will this shape Harvey's knowledge of not just health and food, but of what he called 'the place with the yellow 'M'?'"
Powell felt New Zealand offered an ideal setting for research on the relationship between marketing healthy products and lifestyles and wellbeing of children.
He noted the Advertising Standards Authority's recently introduced Children's and Young People's Advertising Code, which discouraged organisations from explicitly advertising products to children deemed to be unhealthy, and encouraged healthy ones.
"Marketing is a global phenomenon, and other nations, such as Australia, the United Kingdom and Netherlands have similar, I would argue ineffective, self-regulated codes of practice.
"However, no research internationally has yet explored the potential consequences, especially unintended consequences, of corporations marketing healthy products and lifestyles to children."
In some parts of the world, such as Brazil and Quebec in Canada, it was illegal to market anything to children, he said.
"Others demonstrate how the commercialisation of childhood via increasingly pervasive advertising reshapes children's identities from those aligned with democratic ideals of citizenship to those aligned with consumerism.
"It is therefore critical to examine how different organisations market the concept of health, and to what effect."
THE MAORI PERSPECTIVE
Powell saw the study being especially relevant to Maori and Pasifika children, who would be represented among the participants.
One third of school-aged Kiwi children were now considered overweight or obese, and one in nine children between 2 and 14 were obese, including 30 per cent of Pacific children and 15 per cent of Maori children.
Figures also showed one in five children living in socio-economically deprived areas were obese, compared with one in 50 children living in the least deprived areas.
"There is no research that specifically sheds light on how marketing shapes Maori children's health knowledge, practices or identities as they relate to te ao Maori.
"Researchers often focus on the relationship between marketing and children's fat bodies - especially Maori and Pasifika children."
However, this uni-dimensional focus on tinana, or physical dimension, as a main indicator of health does not align well with Maori perspectives of health and wellbeing.
"Given that Pakeha views of health tend to privilege biomedical science, individualism, and the non-fat body, and that these views also dominate public health imperatives and children's understanding of health, it is necessary to examine how marketing 'health' may colonise indigenous knowledge."
It was also vital to understand, he said, how children, whanau and others might act in ways to help to safeguard Maori concepts, values and practices that related to health. Powell ultimately hoped the study would lead to major new insights in three main ways.
"First, it will provide evidence on whether policy shapes the kinds of marketing practices that organisations undertake.
"Second, it will provide nuanced, in-depth and located data on how the marketing of healthy products and lifestyles actually affects children.
"Third, this research will challenge taken-for-granted assumptions that healthy marketing is normal, necessary, harmless, or inherently healthy for children.
"By presenting a sophisticated and robust understanding of the impact of marketing health to children, the study will provide novel insights into marketing policies and practices, and the ways in which children experience, understand, negotiate and resist such everyday attempts to 'improve' their health, bodies and lives."