Ways to take action

Marketing and children’s unhealthy eating habits: a call for change

For years, marketing has been blamed for its role in childhood obesity. Some even pointed out the role played by TV ads on unhealthy eating habits. For Claude Pecheux, professor of Marketing at EDHEC, there is another way to consider the issue. Indeed, marketing communications strategies can also be a powerful tool to encourage healthy eating choices.


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14 Nov 2022

Obesity and the power of food marketing

The World Health Organization (WHO) sounded the alarm about obesity, predominantly in children, as early as 1990. In 1995, an estimated 200 million adults and 18 million children under the age of five were obese worldwide. These numbers are worrying, causing serious public health issues. The first factor to be singled out at the time was marketing, and more particularly advertising. The fact is that TV ads promote processed products such as cereals, chocolate bars and soft drinks rather than a hearty salad or fruit. That said, Claude Pécheux, who wrote a thesis on the influence of advertising on children, highlights that advertising is only one form of marketing communications. “Advertising is just one food information source,” she explains. “We have to differentiate between marketing and marketing communications as well as between the various information sources (media, family, peers, and so on).”

Testing the effectiveness of public measures via research

Since WHO’s alert about obesity, public authorities have launched awareness campaigns across the world. However, most of these measures have failed to work because their effectiveness has not been tested. This is where research can come into play as a tool to help policy makers implement efficient solutions. Public authorities could make more informed decisions if they were based on key learning from research. “Let’s take the widely diffused message ‘eat five fruits and vegetables a day’ as an example,”says Claude Pécheux. “Many consumers believe that once they have done that, they can eat anything they like. Consumers should be protected from persuasive messages they don’t understand.

Consumers need to be educated

Consumers need accurate information to make healthy choices. The question is not only what to consume but also how much. Most consumers have no idea about what an acceptable portion is: they should be educated about portions and meal frequencies as these are key measurement indicators. As for nutrition labels, it’s not easy to navigate all the different labels. And it’s even more difficult for children’s food. “Use of colours for food labelling can be misleading for children who tend to associate green with ‘good for my health but not as tasty’ and red with ‘not good for my health but tastier’,” says Claude Pécheux.

New tools can be used to encourage healthy eating

Innovative tools have been tested and proved to be efficient in helping children make healthy food choices. “Nudging, for example, is a gentle method to encourage people to “positively” change their behaviour in order to make the right decisions. We tested the “leader’s plate” (i.e., the most popular child’s plate) in children’s canteens to persuade others to copy him or her,” recalls Claude Pécheux.

The new generation is calling for change

Eating habits are changing with younger generations, who are really concerned about their health and the food they eat. In this context, industrial leaders should adapt if they want to harness the spending power of younger consumers. But the only way to call for real, lasting change is to ensure that manufacturers, public authorities, academics and marketers work together. “Young consumers are highly educated, and they are tomorrow’s marketers,” says Claude Pécheux. “At EDHEC, we help our marketing students to develop a critical sense regarding societal issues such as health or obesity. They have the skills and willingness to reshape marketing in order to encourage healthy eating habits.

Photo by Karsten Winegeart on Unsplash

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