This profile was part of the Faculty of Public Affairs’ 75 for the 75th series, which highlighted 75 notable alumni in FPA in honour of Carleton University’s 75th anniversary. These stories were published in 2016 and 2017.
CIHR Canada Research Chair in Food Marketing, Policy and Children’s Health, University of Calgary
PhD, Communication (‘03)
As a professor of communication, Charlene Elliott is always evaluating the linkages between policy, messaging and public consumption.
In the case of childhood obesity, those linkages are hard to miss: grocery store aisles are filled with processed food, which is heavily marketed to young people.
“The promise of fun is an increasingly common strategy used by ‘Big Food’ in the promotion of packaged products,” explains Dr. Elliott, an expert in food marketing, packaging and policy. “Gamification, or making it fun, has been identified as a top consumer packaged goods trend, not just for snack food, but it is increasingly being used by healthy eating campaigns that promote unprocessed foods to children.”
While the current focus of her research is on healthy eating campaigns that employ “Big Food” marketing tactics, Dr. Elliott began her academic career studying intellectual property law and the senses, including the trademarking of colour and the implications of such regulatory ownership.
“The move from regulation of the senses to regulation of both food and taste was a natural progression (in my research),” she recalls. “Food marketing, food packaging and food policy all speak to issues of regulation and the deliberate channeling of sensory communication.”
Dr. Elliott has received several grants from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), as well as a prestigious Canada Research Chair. She was recently named a member of Royal Society of Canada’s College of New Scholars, Artists and Scientists for her innovative research “exploring new avenues of inquiry that explore how food marketing, food policy and consumer perceptions/actions factor in the prevention of disease and the promotion of health.”
“I’m grateful because the reviewers at CIHR took a chance on me, which took my career in a different direction,” she says.
Dr. Elliott has led discussions about food marketing with focus groups of children across Canada. One key finding was that children find it difficult to determine a healthy packaged food choice even when they are specifically looking for it.
In response, Dr. Elliott developed a media literacy and food marketing curriculum for children with federal and provincial funding that is currently being taught in schools in three provinces through a partnership with the not-for-profit NSTEP (Nutrition Students Teachers Exercising with Parents). She has also provided policy input on regulations when it comes to food packaging and food marketing to children.
She credits her experience in the School of Journalism and Communication, both as a doctoral student and as a tenured professor, with laying the foundation for an incredibly successful academic career.
“I had such a fabulous experience there, surrounded by generous colleagues and dynamic research,” she recalls of her time at Carleton. “What’s wonderful about this field is that you can define unique questions because it’s changing all the time. I feel very fortunate.”
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