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Research Links Communication to Childhood Obesity

Rutgers Business School professor Jerome Williams is co-editor of a new book of research that explores the role communications play in the nation's troubling epidemic of childhood obesity. The book also touches on the implications of regulating advertising and the variety of efforts underway to try to counter the obesity problem.

NEWARK, N.J. (PRNewswire-USNewswire) — Rutgers Business School professor Jerome Williams is co-editor of a new book of research that explores the role communications play in the nation's troubling epidemic of childhood obesity.

Rutgers Business School Professor Jerome Williams is co-editor of a new book focusing on the role of communications, including marketing by giant food companies, in the growing problem of childhood obesity. (PRNewsFoto/Rutgers Business School)

The book, which contains the perspectives of more than 50 contributing writers, also touches on the implications of regulating advertising and the variety of efforts underway to try to counter the obesity problem, from pressuring the food industry about its marketing tactics to emphasizing the importance of keeping youngsters physically active.

The issue of childhood obesity is as daunting as it is disturbing and no one recognizes the complexity more than Williams and other scholars who are contemplating its causes and implications.

"I've dealt with daunting problems pretty much throughout my academic career," said Williams, who serves as research director of The Center of Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development within RBS's Department of Management and Global Business. "Those are the things that, perhaps, push my buttons," he said.

In an interview, Williams talked about his views on regulation, digital marketing and who might benefit most from reading "Advances in Communication Research to Reduce Childhood Obesity."

Q: By all accounts, the factors that influence what people eat and how they live is complicated, but in your opinion, how much of the blame for childhood obesity sits with large food and beverage companies and their powerful advertising?

A: "Back in 2006, I was one of the co-authors of the Institute of Medicine Report which became a book "Food Marketing to Children: Threat or Opportunity?" and in that particular book we reviewed over 120 studies. We wanted to look at all of the empirical research. 

Coming out of that was one of the conclusions that certainly advertising and communications did have an effect. It could have a significant effect. We're continuing to conduct that kind of research to increase our insight about the role of marketing and communications and, especially when you think about all of the billions of dollars that is being spent by the food and beverage industry, what type of impact it's having.

"What we see today is a lot of communication that is not in what I call the measured media. If you go back 20 or 30 years, if we wanted to look at what was being spent by the food and beverage industry and what impact it was having, we would look at things like radio, television, newspapers, magazines, outdoor billboards, etc. Today, we're talking about digital marketing, mobile marketing and we're talking about that flying-under-the-radar type of communications, such as product placement, where the intent of the advertiser is not always salient or obvious. That makes it even more complicated not only to measure it but also to evaluate its impact.

Q: Do you think regulation or law will be used to change certain food advertising or to restrict people's food and beverage choices?

A: "Many of my colleagues and even many of the co-authors of the book will take a much more forceful position than I might take in terms of where we need to be with regulation. Coming from a business background, and perhaps that's biasing my view, I'm inclined to give the businesses the opportunity to self-regulate. Now if self-regulation doesn't work, then we have to step in and that's when laws would have to be imposed as they were with the tobacco industry. I'm not quite at the point where I'm saying we need to impose those regulations whereas many of my colleagues and close friends and people that I work with feel that we've passed that point, in their eyes, because of the abuses of the food and beverage industry. I am at a point where I say, let's put their feet to the fire and let's really hold them accountable.

"I work with a lot of people in the industry and I think many of them are trying to run a business at the same time that they're facing these pressures from society, the public health industry and government, and it's complicated. Even if businesses could offer certain products that are being demanded by the public health sector, would there be a demand from the consumer sector? At the end of the day, they're in the business of trying to turn a profit at the same time they're trying to satisfy multiple stakeholders. They're looking at what we call the triple bottom line. It's not just about profit, but it's about profit and about doing good and serving the public and being concerned about the environment.

"I've seen enough people in business that have this attitude that I am optimistic, but the question is are there enough business people adopting the attitude who are going to be able to move the needle enough to satisfy those stakeholders who feel the industry is dragging its feet.

Q: Can you talk a little bit more about the impact of digital marketing?

A: "The advertisers and marketers have much more power today to target a message to a specific person. If you look back at the history of marketing and advertising, at one era, they had what was called mass marketing. They would take one message, disseminate it, and try to reach millions of people in the hope that it would have an impact on certain parts of that population. Today, we have the ability to take a message and hone it with such a degree of specificity that it is, really, a segment of one. I often use the example of  If you log on to and you say you're searching for a particular book, the type of promotion that will come up will say, 'Yeah, we know you're thinking about that book, but have you thought about this book?' And as a result of that, all of sudden, you're considering choices that you weren't even thinking about making. If you think about mobile marketing and the ubiquity of cellphones, we are on the verge of a situation where you or I could be walking down the street and we pass a store and an ad flashes in the window that is specifically targeted at us based on our income, our race, ethnicity, our age, gender or our previous purchases not only at that store but our purchases across the web. That's where we are today. It has become so intrusive in terms of our ability to put up cognitive defenses it's not a level playing field, in particular when we talk about children.

Q: What efforts have been made to prevent that intrusion?

A: You have to place that in historical context. If you go back to the 70s and early 80s, we had something called the Kid Vid. It was an effort to give the Federal Trade Commission, the FTC, the ability to regulate television advertising to children. But there was opposition and Congress actually prohibited the FTC from having that power. So, if you look at our economic system and commerce and the free market place, you could assume the power should be in the hands of parents to decide what children should see and what they should purchase, etc. and then you have the other side with people saying this communication is so powerful, intrusive and ubiquitous, you have to regulate it just as we had regulations for advertising tobacco to children.

If we make the assumption that obesity can have the same impact — and by many arguments, the number of people dying today from obesity-related causes has outpaced the number of people dying from tobacco-related causes — you can make an argument that we should be just as vigilant in looking at regulating food and beverage communications particularly to vulnerable populations such as younger people. I've often heard people make the argument that one of the dignities of living is choosing the way you want to die. That is, I can make choices about how dangerous I want to live and what I want to eat and how much I want to exercise. Some people would argue that in the marketplace, if you and I want to go and eat McDonald's every day, then that's our right. Of course, the other argument is, if you want to choose that as an adult, that's one thing, but if there's this preponderance of communication and advertising to children that it's okay to have such a diet, then that's where we have to step in and have some kind of enforcement to assure that it's a level playing field.

Q: You've talked about the Corner Store Initiative. Can you tell us how it's worked to change people's behavior if you provide them with healthy alternatives to junk food and unhealthy snacks?

A: From my perspective as a researcher, I'm not trying to turn a corner store into a healthy store so to speak. We're not trying to turn every corner store into a health food store. That's not the objective. These are business people. They've gone into business to sell certain things. There are certain things that are going to be very profitable for them, so I say the business model has got to work.

I'm saying to the business people that I work with, let's try some of these healthy options and let's give people the choice because if they don't have a choice, then we'll never know if this is going to work. So, we provide some incentives and once people come in and they make those healthy choices then we can demonstrate to those store owners, hey look, you can still make a profit if you expand the choices or substitute some things out that give people this option.

The Corner Store Initiative isn't something novel to Newark.  There's a whole program in other cities across the country that work very closely with an organization called The Food Trust out of Philadelphia, which is the originator of the Corner Store Initiative. They've had a great deal of success. We've worked very closely with them to adapt their model and execute it here in Newark. Just to expand on the business model concept, I was involved with a project to put healthy choices and options in baseball parks. We worked with the San Diego Padres organization. When you think about a baseball game, you assume that most people are going to have a hotdog, a beer, a slice of pizza, some popcorn, etc. In this study that we did, we worked with the San Diego Padres and the local vendors within the stadium to put healthy items on the menu, to have certain kiosks and stands that were only selling healthy items. We tracked the data over a two-to-three-year period and what we found is that there are people, who even when they go to a ballpark, will make the choices for healthy options. I think that's a fairly severe test.

In the case of the corner store, we're particularly concerned about children because many times, that's where they're stopping for breakfast or other 'meals' on the way to and from school.

Q: Do you see this playing out in the same way we've seen regulation created around tobacco and seat belts.

A: Frankly, I think this is a vastly different problem than tobacco. Tobacco is a harmful product in all forms of use. You're also talking about a product that's addictive. When we talk about food, we're not talking about a product that only a certain percentage of the population uses. We're talking about a product that everyone consumes.

It's much more difficult to say let's ban certain foods the way we ban certain types of harmful products. I don't think we want to move to that point of saying we're only going to allow you to go into a fast food restaurant two times a month. I think we have to look at the differences between things like food and tobacco. Also, it's not quite the same as seat belts and other types of public policy where we said we're going to enforce this because we know there are certain types of beneficial effects for everyone that adopts this policy. Food is really in a world of its own.

Q: Whose hands does this book need to be in to help fuel conversations about how to change the influences that are considered part of the problem?

A: There are multiple audiences — other researchers who are doing work in this area can find out what the leading scholars in the field are doing and this can enhance their own work. There are policy makers who are talking about laws and regulation and they can get a better grasp of the gravity of the problem and what's being done. And it may provide insight to them in terms of the types of regulation that might be needed. People in the public health community who are measuring the impact of obesity and what it's doing and what further steps need to be taken. I think all of these folks can benefit from this book. Other people who might benefit are potential funders who can see where there may still be gaps in the research and provide funding to researchers who can continue to examine the problem.

Jerome Williams is the Prudential Chair in Business and serves as the research director of The Center of Urban Entrepreneurship & Economic Development, which is part of the Department of Management and Global Business at Rutgers Business School. His research interests include marketplace discrimination, retail redlining and consumer behavior of multicultural market segments. For more information, go to:

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