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From fun to fraught: marketing to kids and regulating “risky foods” in Canada

Pages 41-53
Published online: 26 Feb 2020


In an era of industrialized food production, ultra-processed foods, “Big Food” marketing, and growing obesity rates, food has come to be framed as an object of risk – and as an object of regulation. Such reframing has fascinating implications related to issues of responsibility and decision making, especially when it comes to children’s food. This article probes the relationship between representation, regulation and “risky” consumption with respect to children’s food. I examine how child-targeted foods become framed as “risky” and what counts as “risky” food messaging under Health Canada’s commitment to restrict the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. Detailing the tension between food as a risk object and food as a child object, I suggest how issues of semantic provisioning and the politics of the unseen work to complicate and destabilize the (seemingly) straightforward process of prohibiting unhealthy food marketing to children.


The author would like to thank the guest editor Sheryl Hamilton for bringing this special issue to fruition, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada [SSHRC Insight Grant no. 435-2015-1916] and the Canada Research Chairs program for support of this project. The author also wishes to thank the anonymous reviewers and the Managing Editor, David Howes for their thoughtful feedback on this manuscript

Disclosure statement

No potential conflict of interest was reported by the author.


1. As Kelloggs’ cereals advertised in the New York Times in 1914: “’Waxtite’ packaging prevented contamination by germs” and 48 public health authorities gave it “official nation-wide endorsement” (Levenstein Citation2012, 12–13).

2. See James (Citation1998) for an analysis of how penny candies function in children’s identity construction, belonging “to the public, social world of children” (396).

3. As an anonymous reviewer of this manuscript wisely observed, the agency of the child is overlooked in the policy related to restricting food marketing to children. Health Canada’s proposed regulation of unhealthy food marketing to children pivots on the logic that children under age 13 do not have the same capacity as adults to identify and evaluate the persuasive appeals of advertising, and therefore are more likely to be manipulated by food promotion. Yet, as the reviewer correctly argues, in a broader context of popular culture (such as in shows like Chopped Junior or Kids Baking Championship), “the child is accepted as chef and cook … [and] praised for their outstanding culinary skills, and often even knowledge of technique and taste profiles of foods”. The kids represented in these popular shows are understood to have a far different sense of agency from what is acknowledged by Health Canada’s policy.

Additional information

Notes on contributors

Charlene Elliott

Charlene Elliott, PhD, is a Professor of Communication at the University of Calgary and holds the Canada Research Chair in Food Marketing, Policy and Children’s Health. Dr. Elliott has published extensively on food marketing, promotion and policy, and has edited several books, including How Canadians Communicate about Food: Food Promotion, Consumption and Controversy (2016). She has provided input and recommendations on federal and international initiatives pertaining to food, labelling and policy, and is a member of the Royal Society of Canada, College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists.

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