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Professor to Brief Congress on Food Marketing to Youth

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Marketing Professor Sonya Grier.
Marketing Professor Sonya Grier.

On Congress's agenda this week: hear from Associate Professor Sonya Grier on targeted food marketing to children and youth of color.

Grier's presentation is part of an educational briefing on food marketing and childhood obesity sponsored by the Food Marketing Workgroup and the Center for Science in Public Interest. The briefings, one each at the House of Representatives and the Senate, will bring several of the nation's top researchers, academics, and advocates to Capitol Hill to discuss how, why, and to what extent food marketing contributes to childhood obesity.

"The briefing will get Congress up to speed on the issues, creating awareness and explaining the situation to policy creators and staffers," Grier said. "They can then use the knowledge as input to their strategies on food marketing and obesity."

Grier is no stranger to the complex relationship between food marketing and youth behavior—much of her prolific research focuses on the topic.

Currently, she is reviewing youth health-related behaviors in the context of digital marketing with research colleague Professor Kathryn Montgomery of AU's School of Communication. The two have a special focus on ethnic minority youth, given the population’s higher rates of obesity and the abundant targeted food and beverage marketing to the demographic. The professors are recipients of a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's Health Eating Research program.

A Growing Problem

An estimated 17 percent of Americans between ages two and 19 are obese, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey from the Centers for Disease Control. More startlingly, about 80 percent of overweight adolescents will grow into obese adults.

As American waistlines grow, so does the breadth of digital food and nutrition marketing. But research on digital marketing to youth and adolescents is seriously underdeveloped, according to Grier and Montgomery. “Commercial marketing is a formidable competitor to public health, largely due to resources such as access to extensive consumer research that companies often have,” Grier said.

Research has shown that television commercials contribute to youth consumption of unhealthy food, but digital food marketing is potentially even more powerful, write Grier and Montgomery in their recent brief Food Marketing in the Digital Age: A Conceptual Framework and Agenda for Research.

"A lot of strategies haven't been evaluated for effectiveness," Grier said. "This is all wide open. There's a need for metrics to evaluate both their positive and negative effects."

Minority Youth

Ethnicity, income, location and gender may also play a role in the relationship children and youth have with digital marketing.

"Driven by the sheer number and growth of minority youth, as well as by their favorable usage patterns and cultural trendsetting, digital marketers have made understanding and reaching out to minority youth a priority," write Grier and Montgomery.

"In the face of such aggressive market research and digital promotion of unhealthful foods to African-American and Hispanic young people, research is urgently needed to address a number of key questions."

Positive Potential

The news isn't all bad. Public health practitioners are using digital marketing efforts such as websites, online and mobile games, social networking, text messaging, and emails to disseminate nutrition information to children. In a separate presentation to the National Institutes of Health, Grier shared "positive" case studies, such as Best Bones Forever!—a health campaign for girls—and mobile games Grocery Hunter and Escape from Dia(betes). These efforts use fun interactions to get kids interested in nutrition.

Sonya Grier has policy experience from her time with the Federal Trade Commission, where she worked on a team examining the marketing of violent entertainment to American youth, and practical industry experience in market research, brand management, and marketing consulting. She is research director for the African American Collaborative Obesity Research Network (AACORN) and on the advisory board of the National Food Marketing Work Group.

Kathryn Montgomery has conducted extensive research on children and the media, including her recent book Generation Digital: Politics, Commerce, and Childhood in the Age of the Internet. She co-founded the Center for Media Education in 1991 and led the center as president until 2003, promoting media policies to benefit children and youth. Her research and advocacy on e-commerce and electronic privacy in the 1990s led Congress to pass the Online Privacy Protection Act in 1998.