Dr Darren Powell of the University’s Faculty of Education and Social Work has received a $300,000 Marsden Fund ‘Fast Start’ grant to research how children understand and experience ‘healthy’ marketing practices.
The study, called “Consuming kids: The impact of marketing ‘health’ to children”, will provide the first in-depth conceptualisation and analysis of how marketing healthy products and lifestyles shapes children’s health knowledge, health practices and health identities.
“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,” Dr Powell says.
“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 one of the main reasons I wanted to do this research is a 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,” Dr Powell says.
This research includes a critical examination of the ‘Coca-Colonisation’ of health: how ‘other’ ways of understanding health, such as indigenous knowledge, may be created, maintained, or silenced by contemporary marketing policies and practices.
Sixteen children, aged 7-9 years, from two schools, will use wearable cameras to create visual images at diverse sites, including homes, schools, and sports clubs. These images will be analysed with the children in order to get rich descriptions and original insights into the attempts of corporations and their various partners to market the concept of health to children in Aotearoa.
When Dr Powell was told he had been awarded a Marsden Grant, his first thought was of the moment he conceived the project, a few years ago when he was watching a children’s TV programme with his son, Harvey.
“An advertisement appeared for a certain fast restaurant, promoting wraps, sliced apples, and bottled water, rather than burgers,” says Dr Powell.
“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’?”
He was also relieved that the support he had received from his colleagues in applying for this grant had not been in vain.
“I was truly humbled by the amount of time that colleagues from the faculty and beyond gave to help support this project, in particular Nic Mason, Jay Marlowe and Katie Fitzpatrick.
“I’m just glad that others also believed this type of research is valuable and that I can make an important contribution to develop our understanding of how marketing impacts children’s thoughts, actions, and identities.”
Dr Powell, a lecturer in Curriculum and Pedagogy, joined the university in 2014 after several years as a primary school teacher.
Dr Powell’s current research focuses on the childhood obesity ‘epidemic’ and the ways in which corporations (especially those of the food and drink industry) and charities are now re-inventing themselves as ‘part of the solution’. This includes an investigation of how schools, teachers and children are drawn into the global war on obesity, and how corporations are using concerns about children’s lifestyles to promote themselves as healthy, philanthropic and educational.
His research has interrogated the role of corporations – mostly food companies – and charities in schools. This includes a critical analysis of the various healthy lifestyles education resources and programmes that are provided free to primary schools and the ways in which certain notions of health are reproduced in ways that align with the private sector’s best interests, but not necessarily the children’s.