Advances in Communication Research to Reduce Childhood Obesity ed. by Jerome D. Williams, Keryn E. Pasch, and Chiquita A. Collins (review)
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The Role of Media in Promoting Healthy Nutritional Habits: A Review of Advances in Communication Research to Reduce Childhood Obesity, edited by Jerome D. Williams, Keryn E. Pasch, and Chiquita A. Collins

Heartening news was published in the New York Times on August 9, 2013: obesity rates of preschoolers from low-income families have declined in 19 states for the first time in decades,1 suggesting the global obesity trend is indeed reversible. Yet too much optimism would belie the direness of the epidemic. In the U.S., nearly 32 percent of children and adolescents older than 2 are either overweight or obese, closely followed by England and Australia, where the numbers are, respectively, 30 percent2 and 21 to 25 percent.3 Far from a phenomenon affecting only developed nations, sharp increases in Asian obesity rates are a rising concern.4 Weight-related health complications, including a slew of chronic diseases, such as diabetes, remain a considerable, and possibly avoidable, economic strain on the world’s healthcare systems.

Clearly a global health issue, weight-related health complications are unequivocally blamed on the shift in food preferences, consumption patterns, and exercise habits engendered by a mass-mediated consumer society. Although obesity drivers are composed of complex, dynamic, and sometimes intangible social, economic, and cultural factors, food and beverage corporations are represented by the press and some advocacy groups as the main culprits in promoting unhealthy habits. As the argument goes, focused marketing efforts have introduced calorie-rich, nutrient-poor foods and beverages into the daily fare of many consumers, compounding the already worrying lack of traction of accessible and affordable alternatives.

Advances in Communications Research to Reduce Childhood Obesity comprehensively addresses questions on the role of media in childhood obesity, striving to bring together insights on numerous issues, including legislative mandates, corporate accountability, and environmental influence. Dedicated to reversing the obesity trend, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation highlights the importance of communication studies in the book’s foreword:

From increasing awareness of the threat childhood obesity poses to our nation’s health to promulgating promising approaches for change, we recognize that communication is an essential element to inform, appeal, influence, and affect children, families, communities, and policy makers.5

As such, the book begins with an overview of obesity-related policy research in part I, with chapter 2 reviewing the conclusions reached in the 2006 Institute of Medicine’s report, Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity? Chapter 3 brings to light the increased use of Integrated Marketing Communications (the practice of efficiently employing a variety of channels and techniques to communicate a unified brand message), and the consequence for current and future regulation.

As a follow-up, part II delves further into the legal, ethical, and policy implications of advertising. Chapter 4 documents the stance of obesity prevention advocates and marketing practitioners on the ethical issues in children’s advertising, including the reach of self-regulation. The issue of the latter reappears in more detail in chapter 6. Chapter 5 lifts the veil on the legal intricacies of regulating communications by discussing the use of the U.S. Constitution’s first amendment by both sides of the dispute. Finally, chapter 7 exposes a number of best and worst practices in advertising, highlighting the techniques that skirt current regulatory constraints.

Given that legal action requires reasonable suspicion of causality and/or proof of effectiveness, these chapters are followed by a closer look at the latest findings on the impact of advertising. This consists of studies on children’s exposure to food advertising on television (chapter 8), the role of advertising on food consumption attitudes (chapter 9), digital food marketing (chapter 10), and youth food perception and evaluation (chapter 11).

Parts IV and V hone in on more specific research regarding the role of place in food marketing (“place” to be understood as both geographic location and physical surroundings) and racial/ethnic minorities as target groups. Chapters 12 through 15, respectively, discuss the obesity trend in India, the role of schools as marketing places, outdoor advertising, and youth-specific marketing in food stores. Keeping the focus on the U.S., chapters 16...