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Social Science & Medicine 121 (2014) 85 e 90 Contents lists available at ScienceDirect Social Science

Contents lists available at ScienceDirect

Social Science & Medicine

journal homepage: ocate/socscimed Food as people: Teenagers' perspectives on food

Food as people: Teenagers' perspectives on food personalities and implications for healthy eating

Charlene Elliott

Department of Communication and Culture, Faculty of Arts, University of Calgary, 2500 University Avenue NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4

2500 University Avenue NW, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2N 1N4 article info Article history: Received 27 June

article info

Article history:

Received 27 June 2014 Received in revised form 20 September 2014 Accepted 24 September 2014 Available online 28 September 2014


Healthy eating

Food symbolism

Food marketing




In light of its in uence on food preferences, purchase requests and consumption patterns, food mar- keting d particularly for unhealthy foods d has been increasingly recognized as a problem that affects the health of young people. This has prompted both a scrutiny of the nutritional quality of food products and various interventions to promote healthy eating. Frequently overlooked by the public health community, however, is the symbolic and social meaning of food for teenagers. Food has nutritive value, but it has symbolic value as well d and this qualitative study explores the meaning of non-branded foods for teenagers. Inspired by the construct of brand personality, we conduct focus groups with 12 e 14 year olds in to probe their perspectives on the food personalities of unbranded/commodity products and cate- gories of food. Despite the lack of targeted marketing/promotional campaigns for the foods discussed, the focus groups found a remarkable consensus regarding the characteristics and qualities of foods for young people. Teenagers stigmatize particular foods (such as broccoli) and valorize others (such as junk food), although their discussions equally reveal the need to consider questions beyond that of social posi- tioning/social status. We suggest that public health initiatives need to focus greater attention on the symbolic aspects of food, since a focus on nutritional qualities does not unveil the other signi cant factors that may make foods appealing, or distasteful, to young people. © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

1. Introduction

In the past decade, food marketing has been increasingly recognized as a problem that affects the health of young people worldwide ( WHO, 2010, 2013; Hawkes and Lobstein, 2011; Raine et al., 2013; Garde et al., 2012 ). The World Health Organization, for instance, has released a series of recommendations that seek to counter the powerful marketing techniques that promote foods high in sugar, fat and/or sodium to children ( WHO, 2010, 2012, 2013 ). Such recommendations emerge from evidence that sug- gests that young children are cognitively unable to recognize or guard against the persuasive intent of marketing ( Kunkel et al., 2004 ), and that unhealthy food marketing in uences children's preferences, purchase requests, and consumption patterns ( Kunkel et al., 2004; Cairns et al., 2009, 2013; Harris et al., 2014; Hastings et al., 2007; McGinnis et al., 2006; Persson et al., 2012; WHO, 2010, 2013 ). While rising rates of youth overweight/obesity has prompted intense scrutiny of the nutritional qualities of food aimed

0277-9536/ © 2014 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

at young people ( Hastings et al., 2007; McGinnis et al., 2006; Potvin, Kent & Wanless, 2011; Elliott, 2012a, 2012b, 2008 ), no less signi cant is the relationship between food and the social and cultural aspects that might promote more positive dietary in youth ( Backett-Milburn et al., 2010 ). Simply put, food has nutritional properties, but is also embedded in a social matrix of meaning which can in uence consumption ( Schor and Ford, 2007, p. 16). Food has symbolic value, functions as a sociocultural product ( Levi- Strauss, 1962; Douglas, 1966, 1975; Coveney, 2014 ) and can prove central to discourses about identity d in general, and also for young people. A growing body of literature has taken up the question of the social meaning of food for young people. Research has revealed how children identify food for themselves and for others ( Elliott, 2011; Roos, 2002; James, 1998; James et al., 2009 ), and how particular foodstuffs (including food brands) can serve an image and social status function. For instance, Willis et al.'s (2009) study of British middle class teenagers reveals the importance of belonging and of negotiating with the peer group when making food consumption choices. Similarly, Martine Stead et al. (2011) explore how preoccupations with social status factor in British teenagers' food choices and attitudes toward foods. For the


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teenagers interviewed, consuming mainstream brand products signaled a secure social position in the peer groupwhereas consuming supermarket and no-name brands was regarded as uncool and nerdy ( Stead et al., 2011, p. 1135). As such, a popular person would drink Coca Cola or Pepsi and not unbranded soda (2011, p. 1135). Roper and La Niece (2009) also found that British children (aged 7 e14) evaluated food products in light of what might be popular with peers. Branded products, such as Coke, Evian, Walkers, KitKat, and Coke, were seen as cool and able to make their consumer more popular among peers. Viewing branded products as cool and as capable of communi- cating social status has long been recognized in the eld of mar- keting, where strategists deliberately strive to create brand personalities for their products. As a construct, brand personality refers to the set of human personality traits that are both applicable to and relevant for brands ( Azoulay and Kapferer, 2003 , p. 151) or more simply the set of human characteristics associated with a brand ( Aaker, 1997, p. 150). Brand personality is presumed to give the brand a meaning ( Azoulay and Kapferer, 2003 , p. 143) and is viewed as invaluable in creating brand equity ( Geuens et al., 2009 , p. 97). Key to the brand personality construct is the notion of traits d the types of terms used to describe the personality. Traits are stable and recurrent ( Azoulay and Kapferer, 2003 ). Moreover, brand identity (and brand personality) should be understood from the sender side perspective, the desired personality being con- structed ( Geuens et al., 2009 ). To illustrate, Aaker explains that Absolut vodka personied tends to be described as a cool, hip, contemporary 25-year old, whereas Stoli's personi ed tends to be described as an intellectual, conservative, older man (1997, p. 347). Alternatively, when it comes to the personality traits associated with cola, Coke is regarded as cool, all-American and real, Pepsi is seen as young, exciting, and hip , and Dr. Pepper, nonconforming, unique and fun (1997, p. 348). The assumption is that consumers frequently infuse brands with human personality traits, which serve a symbolic function ( Aaker, 1997 ). Even though the brand personality concept has been assessed and re ned ( Geuens et al., 2009; Austin et al., 2003; Beldona and Wysong, 2007; Azoulay and Kapferer, 2003; Johar et al., 2005 ), from a marketing perspective one key message is that the personality traits come to be associated with a brand due its product endorsers ( Aaker, 1997, p. 348). That is, brand person- ality emerges out of very deliberate messaging and advertising/ promotion. However, creating a brand personality is also a dynamic process d and one not wholly controlled by the marketer. People bring in their personal, subjective meanings as well ( Johar et al., 2005 , p. 468). In light of this, our study set out to connect questions pertaining to the symbolic meaning of food for teenagers with the concept of non-branded personality (i.e., those existing outside of brands). Speci cally, we were interested in how teenagers perceived com- modity products and categories of foods that weren't brands and did not have sizable marketing budgets designed to create partic- ular associations. Did teenagers attribute consistent characteristics to non-branded foods, and what might be the signi cance of this? While much of the public health/public policy literature is focused on how to choose for persons (i.e., limiting the marketing of poorly nutritious foods to young people), we were interested in how young people understand food as persons . Speci cally we asked teenagers about food personalities (e.g., if broccoli was a person, what kind of person would broccoli be?). To reiterate, commodity products and categories of food do not generally have advertising and promotional campaigns seeking to communicate particular attributes. Our study aimed to explore teenagers' perceptions of these foods.

2. Methods

Focus groups were used to elicit teenagers' perspectives on food and food personalities. Focus group methodology is increasingly being recognized for its effectiveness in research related to health and nutrition ( Feldman et al., 2014; Jones, 2010; Labiner-Wolfe and Lando, 2007 ), as well as for its ability to gain insight into young people's attitudes ( Peterson-Sweeney, 2005; Heary and Hennessy, 2002 ). Focus groups were also selected since they are often used by industry to gauge consumer attitudes and perceptions ( Michman and Mazze, 1998 , p. 184; Schade, 2007; Lindstrom and Seybold, 2003 ) and have speci cally been used to explore brand personality ( Geuens et al., 2009; Azoulay and Kapferer, 2003 , p. 143) d which was the inspiration for probing youth ideas pertaining to food as people . Finally, this method allowed us to unveil how group norms shape perspectives about food: focus groups are premised on the fact that people draw on a shared fund of expe- riences ( Lindlof and Taylor, 2011, p.183). As such, they are ideal for identifying the norms or attitudes of a particular community , such as teenagers ( Hennink, 2011, p. 140). Five focus groups ( n ¼ 6) totaling 30 students (18 female, 12 male) were held at a Junior High School in in the spring of 2013. Focus groups were segmented by grade and gender, as is recom- mended in research with young people ( Heary and Hennessy, 2002; Greenbaum, 1988; Vaughn et al., 1996 ). This allows for group homogeneity ( Hennink, 2011, p. 150), and creates a context where participants are more likely to be at ease (e.g., adolescent participants may be uncomfortable/shy or distracted by members of the opposite sex). Segmentation has the additional bene t of allowing researchers to determine whether issues cluster according to different types of participants. Given this, three teenage girls groups were held (grades 7, 8 and 9) and two teenage boys groups (grades 7 and 8), corresponding to an age range of 12 e14 years. As per leading market research companies and health agencies, teenagers were de ned as spanning ages 12 to 19 ( Mediamark Research Institute, 2003; CDC, 2014 ). After receiving ethics approval from both the Research Ethics Board and the participating school, a letter detailing the aims of the study was distributed to students for both student and parental consent. A trained moderator, following a semi-structured moder- ator's guide, led the discussion. As this was part of a broader research study, the rst section of the focus group consisted of open-ended questions related to foods and packaged foods, fol- lowed by discussion inquiring into how the participants evaluated the health qualities of packaged foods (i.e., what did they look for on packages). Participants also engaged in selection and sorting exercises of packaged foods (placing them into categories of healthy and less healthy) as a strategy for facilitating discussions around what they selected and why, and the kinds of packaging facts and symbolic appeals that in uenced their decisions. Finally, the questions moved to the topic of food as people d which is explored in this article. The moderator opened the conversation by saying: It is interesting to consider different food and think about the kinds of ideas they bring to mind. Let's say broccoli was a person at a party. What kind of person would broccoli be? This same line of questioning was raised for various foods and categories of food, including milk, eggs, meat, junk food and organic food. Participants' responses were videotaped and transcribed verbatim; eld notes were also recorded by the researchers during and after each session. One bene t of videotaping is that re- searchers could refer back to the tapes during data analysis in order to ensure that the interaction between participants was fully captured, as well as clarifying the meaning of the participant's re- sponses. Following grounded theory, the lead researcher and a research assistant created a provisional list of codes from the data

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(open coding), re ned into salient themes and examined. Iterative comparison and inductive coding techniques were used ( Strauss and Corbin, 1998; Crabtree and Miller, 1999; Lindlof and Taylor, 2011 ). Constant comparison throughout coding d continually analyzing data throughout the data collection and theory buil- ding d assisted in de ning each category's properties more pre- cisely ( Lindlof and Taylor, 2011, p. 251). As a whole, this analytic strategy intends to unveil the participants' perspectives on food and food packaging and, for this article in particular, on the teen- agers' views of the personality attributes of different unprocessed foods and food categories. Such knowledge can bene t the public health community by revealing the social meaning and status of certain foods for teenagers, and by signaling where these foods t in the broader food environment. This knowledge is key to the task of encouraging healthy eating among teenagers, since people rarely make food choices based on nutritional quality alone.

3. Findings

Two key ndings emerged from the data analysis. First, despite the fact that commodity products, unprocessed foods and broader categories of food rarely have targeted promotional campaigns seeking to communicate speci c attributes (as is the case with brands), young people did attach meanings to these foods d meanings and evaluations that were remarkably consistent. Secondly, these meanings worked to stigmatize particular foods and valorize others, showing (in keeping with other research) that healthy choices can be viewed as socially risky ( Stead et al., 2011, p. 1134) and unhealthy choices as transgressive yet desir- able ( Elliott, 2011; Chapman and Maclean, 1993; James, 1998 ). As a consequence, certain foods/food categories d based on their per- sonality and sometimes in light of their popularity d were considered more appealing than others. The following analysis rst details the food personalities of individual foods and food categories.

3.1. Unprocessed and commodity products

Teenagers enthusiastically discussed food personalities in the focus groups, painting the image of a personality as a package that embraces dress, age, gender and popularity, as well as character and attitudinal traits. For the unprocessed and commodity prod- ucts, such as broccoli, eggs and milk, an overarching theme was that of sincerity. Sincerity, however, did not necessarily translate into a sense of social popularity or social desirability.

3.1.1. Broccoli Across all groups, broccoli was viewed as rather shy, unpopular and boring. Considered a bit of a loner or on the fringe of the social group broccoli is the kind of person who tries hard but is rejected due to geekiness and lack of style. The grade 8 boys (8B) focus group had an animated discussion on this:

R1 Broccoli would be that annoying friend that everybody keeps hanging out with, but you're not mean enough to say Go Away to .

R2 [If broccoli was a person at a party] he'd just be all alone drinking punch in a corner.

R4 He'd be the guy who's wearing the stupid Hawaiian shirt .

Similar themes came out in the other focus groups, which saw broccoli as shy (grade 7 girls, 7G), boring (grade 8 girls, 8G) or dull (grade 9 girls, 9G) d and the one standing in the corner in a social gathering (7G). Broccoli is the kind of person who wears

pants that are too short (9G) or who tries to be the class presi- dent but doesn't win because it's really a popularity contest(9G). Broccoli's dress, style and overall character were discussed within a framework of its social position. The teenagers recognized broccoli as earnest and sincere (i.e., the kind of person who runs for class president) while simultaneously articulating the need to distance oneself from him for reasons of status and popularity.

3.1.2. Eggs

Eggs, like broccoli, were viewed as sincere. However, teenagers' discussions were far more focused on yoking the egg's physical attributes to its perceived personality. An egg's personality was seen as fragile (8B) and emotional (likely to break under pres- sure) (8G, 8B) d the kind of person where you'd say something and he'll break down in tears (8B). While some viewed eggs as nerdy (9G), a kinder social assessment was rendered for eggs compared to broccoli. Rather than being viewed as a loner, eggs were described as having some friends but not a lot(8B). Eggs would hang out with others of his kind (8B). No one mentioned eggs aspiring to a higher status or dressing in an uncool fashion; the egg personality simply accepted its place in the social hierarchy. Perhaps this lack of social aspiration is why eggs were not framed as annoying or as trying too hard.

3.1.3. Milk

Milk was the one commodity product that evoked a divided response. Girls viewed milk as attractive and athletic, as did the grade 7 boys. Milk would be a healthy and athletic person (7B), the football player who is both cool and the hottie (9G). Grade 8 boys, however, engaged in an animated d and less pos- itive d discussion over the attributes of milk, and one that did not come to a consensus:

R1 Milk would be annoying .

R2 Milk would be the guy who has like, three friends .

R3 Like the true friends though .

R4 Three good friends .

R6 I think he'd have a lot of friends. He'd be that guy who hangs out with all the druggies but doesn't do the drugs .

R1 He's a poser drug dealer.

All of the teenagers who discussed milk identi ed it as male, although two divergent themes emerged: milk as athletic, popular and attractive, and milk as annoying and a bit of a poser. It was unclear in the discussion whether hanging out with the druggies was viewed as milk's attempt to be cool or as signaling a bad apple (and therefore someone to be avoided). The term poser suggests the former. However, the overarching perspective on milk was positive. Even the notion that milk would have three friends, but that they would be true friends suggests authenticity and quality; the fact that he might hang out with the druggies but not do drugs suggests posing but also a purity da resistance to engage in illegal behavior or behavior that might negatively affect the mind and body.

3.2. Categories of food and classi cations of food

Unlike the theme of sincerity that characterized unprocessed and commodity products , teenagers did not articulate a single over- arching theme for the categories and classi cations of food dis- cussed. Dominant themes did emerge for the speci c food categories of meat, junk food and organic food, however.


C. Elliott / Social Science & Medicine 121 (2014) 85e 90

Compared to the discussion of unprocessed and commodity products , conversations around meat, junk food and organic pivoted more strongly on physical and sensory attributes. Age and appearance (as well as keeping up appearances ) also took center stage.

3.2.1. Meat

Meat was the single food/topic that generated the sharpest difference in terms of gender perspectives. Although both the girls and boys focus groups all identi ed meat as male, with the general consensus was that meat was older (an adult male, with most young people identifying him as either older , middle-aged or old ), the similarities ended there. While the boys felt that meat would be outgoing, popular, physically impressive and attractive to females, the girls' groups regarded meat as beefy d and not in a good way. They saw meat as fat , as well as boring and smelling bad . Speci c quotations from the groups make this gender divide

clear. Grade 7 boys explained that meat would be outgoing, because people like meat and muscular with all those muscles popping out . Meat would be with cheerleaders and/or sur- rounded by girls. Grade 8 boys echoed this, identifying meat as buff , cool , a jock and one of those guys you like to hang around with. Two boys speci cally referenced meat as a muscle- bound wrestler d like the Rock (referring to the American actor and professional wrestler Dwayne Johnson). The girls, as mentioned, found meat to be signi cantly less impressive. They consistently identi ed meat as old and fat, and some saw him as a couch potato . Unlike the boys who viewed meat as muscular and outgoing, the grade 7 girls discussed how meat would socially isolate itself. He would be like the fat, bald old man sitting at the bar who only talks to his friends and no- body else . As such, a stark contrast emerged in the sense of physical attractiveness attributed by the boys compared to the girls (i.e., attractive versus unattractive). Key, too, is the fact that meat was the only food item discussed that evoked a smell component. The Grade 9 girls focus group argued that meat would be the person who always smells bad. However, Grade 7 boys saw it differently: meat would use Axe body spray and be surrounded by girls. (Note: Unilever-owned Axe body spray for men is advertised as a product that makes men irresistible to women.)

3.2.2. Junk food

Young people often associate junk food with fun ( Elliott, 2011 ) and fun activities such as movies, parties and spending time with friends ( Harrison and Jackson, 2009 ). This played out in the focus groups: the dominant trait associated with junk food appeared to be excitement. None of the other foods discussed d broccoli, milk, eggs, meat d were framed as exciting. This classi cation was not entirely positive, however, since the theme of arti ciality (i.e., a fake or phony) also factored strongly, revealing a tension between positive and negative poles. Both genders identi ed junk food as a party person, a hyper personality (8G), who would be funny and fun to hang around

with (8B). While many respondents observed that junk food would be young and would have many friends, there was also a strong sense of super ciality observed by several people. This emerged in terms of surface appearances d both social and physical.

R1 [Junk food would] always take you [to] fun places (8B)

R4 I think that junk food would have a lot of friends because everybody likes junk food in real life. Organic would have some friends, not a lot. Not everybody likes organic .

R2 Yeh. Junk food would be that guy who's got a lot of friends but they're not real friends. Those fake friends [who say], Hey, I like you . (8B)

R3 [in a mocking tone, impersonating junk food], I like you , Aiden. I like you so much, Aiden. I love you .

In the girls' groups, the super ciality of junk food emerged in a social and physical fashion d as the person who part[ies] all the time (7G) and puts on tons and tons of makeup . One female respondent explained that all that makeup would be like the arti cial coloring found in junk food (7G). As such, junk food's social popularity and fun is undermined by its arti ciality. A minor theme, too, was that junk food was not athletic (a few indicated it would be fat or look like a slob ).

3.2.3. Organic food Overall, organic food was associated with positive characteris- tics. The majority of the teenagers identi ed organics as shy, female and a person of quality: the kind of person who blossoms once you get to know her. Organics was positioned as a female, since fe- males tend to put a little more thought into what they eat (B7). It was also seen as natural looking, with long hair, natural clothing, and dressed like a hippy . Reference to a hippy emerged in all focus groups. Teenagers also identi ed organics as young, or with a youthful appearance due to a healthy lifestyle:

They'd be young. (7B)

They'd look young. They could be old, but they look young because they are healthy. (7B)

Organic is 37 but they look 20 . (7B)

Just as junk food stood apart with its dominant trait of exciting , and meat represented the only food evoking a smell component and universally classi ed as both male and old or older , organic food was the only food in which the notion of a social conscience was articulated. Although the reference to hippies in the focus groups pivoted primarily on appearance (long hair, long skirts, natural clothing or cotton clothing and never with dyed hair ), politically motivated movements were certainly assisted by hippies (e.g., organic farming, the back to the land movement of the 1960s, alternative energy, etc.) d regardless of whether the re- spondents intended this. However, a grade 7 girl speci cally observed that organics wouldn't wear any clothes made out of real fur, [and] they wouldn't have anything that kills animals.

4. Discussion

This qualitative study sought to explore young people's per- spectives on the symbolic meaning of foods and, in particular, whether teenagers identi ed distinct personalities in foods/food categories even without ongoing targeted branding/promotion to establish these traits. For the 30 teenagers asked, this most certainly was the case, with a strong group consensus on the at- tributes of various unprocessed/commodity foods and food cate- gories. Certain aspects dominated for the foods discussed: broccoli, eggs and milk were discussed, in part, in light of social aspiration and/or popularity. Broccoli was pilloried for trying too hard to be part of the cool group ; eggs were considered to be a fragile in terms of personality but non-threatening to the social hierarchy (i.e., non-aspirational and therefore not judged harshly); milk was seen as popular by some and having either a few good friends by others (i.e., authentic). Milk's physicality also came into play as part

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of the personality discussion for some teenagersd the healthy, hottieathlete. For the food categories , popularity and physicality equally resonated: meat as popular (for boys) and anti-social (for girls), athletic and alluring (for boys) and fat and unattractive (for girls), and universally described as male and older with a sensory (smell) component. Junk food was the fun , popular person- ality d but also fake and shallow. With organic food, far less emphasis was on popularity or friendship whereas appearance factored stronglydappearance in terms of youthful looking and also with respect to dress/style. In light of previous research on how teenagers' consider social status when it comes to making food choices, it is fascinating to see how teenagers apply a social status to foods themselves. Teenagers may use foods to t in with the peer group, or as a means of elevating their own status, or judging the status of others ( Stead et al., 2011; Roper and La Niece, 2009; Willis et al., 2009 ). In this, food becomes a powerful means of communicating one's identity. Yet teenagers also readily translate these communicative aspects to the food itself, personifying food as an identity d nerdy broccoli, cool milk, popular (but fake) junk food d and placing that food within a social hierarchy. Recurring in this discussion is the network of friendships (or the web of relations around friendship) for the foods considered. This preoccupation with the quality of friendship d surface versus depth, a few true friends versus many fakefriends d profoundly reorients the social hierarchy discussion. While at rst blush the emphasis on excitement, fun and would seem to put junk food at the top of the social hierarchy, teenagers also stress junk food's super ciality. This suggests that teens might place more value on a less popular position amongst their peers if also paired with more desirable qualities. In this respect, previous research that focuses solely on how food/food brands communicate social status for young people might be missing an important question (i.e., what else beyond social status is important for teenagers?). Given the lack of targeted marketing campaigns around such foods, the consistency of these personality evaluations by teenagers is remarkable. It further raises the question of how teenagers have come to this consensus in the rst place. Previous research has documented that young people do categorize foods (and not just branded food products), use foods to create socially constructed distinctions ( Ludvigsen and Scott, 2009 ), and have clear perspec- tives on their characteristics ( James, 1998; Elliott, 2011 ). Presum- ably the consensus among teenagers when it comes to food personalities stems, in part, from interplay with broader cultural attitudes. Philosopher Rick Dolphijn suggests that a foodscape consists of processes where elements relate to each other and generate relations and affects ( Brembeck et al., 2013 , p. 76), which situates food within part of a wider network of relationships and structures. As such, the food personalities articulated can be informed by a variety of in uences. First, brand personality re- sponses may be linked to the product performance, with people arguing that energy drinks are energetic ( Azoulay and Kapferer, 2003 ). A similar process of connecting performance with per- sonality emerges with the suggestion that the personality of eggs is fragile , that milk is cool and that organics is healthy and natural . Second, seminal work on the sociology of taste docu- ments a gender divide between women and men when it comes to vegetables and meat: meat is seen as hearty, sustenance food for men, whereas lighter fare (such as sh and vegetables) is reserved for women and children ( Bourdieu, 1984 : 188). Related to this, research with 225 Canadian children (ages 6 e12) documents that young people classify meat as adult food ( Elliott, 2011 ). Given this, the teenagers' unanimous identi cation of meat as male and older is borne out by other studies, as is the positive endorsement of meat by the teenage boys (and the less enthusiastic response by

girls). Moreover, weight concerns factor strongly in adolescent girls' food choices ( Macht and Simons, 2000 ): this might explain why the girls xated on the fat aspects of meat (i.e., meat is a fat old man), whereas the boys did not mention fat at all. The third cultural in uence that might inform the teenagers' views on food personalities is re ected in literature which sug- gests showing an interest in healthy eating is socially risky for many young people ( Stead et al., 2011; Ludvigsen and Scott, 2009 ), while making unhealthy food choices (such as junk food or fast food) fosters peer acceptance ( Harrison and Jackson, 2009; Chapman and Maclean, 1993 ). One notable exception is for boys playing sports, in which healthy eating is not stigmatized ( Stead et al., 2011 ). In fact, a qualitative research study with Canadian teenagers found that boys described healthy food almost exclu- sively in terms of being a key factor in physical activity and tness ( Harrison and Jackson, 2009 , p. 9). Given this, the social risk associated with healthy food might explain why foods like broccoli and eggs were classi ed as nerdy or described as having few friends; the acceptability of healthy eating for boys linked with sports might explain why milk received such favorable reviews by those who identi ed milk as a football player or athlete, and meat as a jock or a wrestler d all male entities. These insights creatively expand our understanding of the social meaning of food for young people. Strategies designed to encourage healthy eating in adolescents often focus on policies at the meso- or macro-level rather than on personal perspectives and attitudes d - that is, where food ts the social matrix of meaning ( Schor and Ford, 2007, p. 16). The concept of brand personality draws atten- tion to the unique characteristics associated with brands, and the ways that personality traits work to infuse objects with meaning for consumers. Building on this concept to ask teenagers what they think about food personalities reveals the social construction d and social status d of these foods in a fashion that could not be uncov- ered by simply asking them what a cool person would eat. Recon guring the food as a person allows for greater depth of discussion, unveiling considerations pertaining to quality of social relationships, social status, gender, age and a range of personality traits. Exploring how food is used to project desired identities is interesting (see Stead et al., 2011 ). Yet the question of how foods are given literal identities by young people d the issue of how food presents itself d suggests that young people bring more nuance to the currently held assumption that, for them, unhealthy choices are the most desirable ones ( Stead et al., 2011 ). Exploring food as people also prompts us to consider how broader cultural attitudes toward food need to be embraced by public health initiatives. Focus on the nutritional qualities of broccoli does not address the social stigma associated with broccoli as unpopular, a geekor a loner . And, given the consensus and consistency of views among the teenagers interviewed, such perspectives need to be considered in any initiative designed to improve the eating of young people. Teenager perspectives on food personalities raise some impor- tant considerations for public health and for policy. In light of the ndings, some individuals might suggest that public health au- thorities should employ marketers' techniques to craft winsome personalities for healthier foods. This is one option, and similar recommendations have been made in a WHO technical paper on food marketing to children, which argued that NGOs and gov- ernments should use social marketing to encourage healthy eating and that industry should be encouraged to put its efforts behind healthy options . A challenge with these recommendations, however, is that they might be unrealistic and/or distorted. NGOs and governments do not have substantial budgets to promote broccoli, meat (etc.), and they cannot compete with the promo- tional budgets of Big Food. It also remains unclear whether top- down marketing techniques to make broccoli cool will be


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effective (research is needed on how teenagers came to this consensus about unprocessed/unbranded foods in the rst place). Furthermore, industry-led efforts to promote healthy options to young people have often been more about marketing than nutri- tion. The food industry has promoted highly processed products such as Froot Loops cereal, Lucky Charms cereal, Kool-Aid Jammers and Dunkaroos cookies as healthier-for-you foods to children ( Elliott, 2012, 2012b ). We would suggest that such healthier pro- cessed products sit in a different category than unprocessed fare. Stated differently, the food industry might argue that effort has been placed behind healthy options. For these reasons, along with teenagers' nuanced perceptions on unbranded food personalities, further research on the social and symbolic meanings of food for young people is necessary.


77 e 92 .

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