Dishing up data on digital marketing

Online marketing of unhealthy products needs to be tightened up, according to the World Health Organisation, but the UK food industry doesn’t agree.

Children in Europe are still “regularly exposed to digital marketing of many unhealthy products”, including foods high in fat, salt and sugar [HFSS] and alcoholic drinks. That was the conclusion of WHO’s latest report on an issue that has long divided health campaigners and the food industry – and confused regulators.

“Nearly a decade after introducing the 2010 WHO recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, exposure of children to the online marketing of unhealthy food products, tobacco and alcohol remains commonplace,” said Dr João Breda, head of the WHO European office for the prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases.

Evidence suggests advertising can affect what and when children eat – both just after seeing an advert and in the longer term – by shaping children’s food preferences from a young age. This has the potential to affect their likelihood to become or remain overweight as adults. On this basis, campaigners have argued that tough new regulations are needed to ensure children aren’t bombarded with ads for junk food. In the UK, they might just get their way.

In March, the Department for Health and Social Care unveiled proposals to introduce a 9pm watershed on TV and online adverts for HFSS products. The objective is “reducing children’s exposure to those products that have little nutritional value but that are part of a wider climate that is driving childhood obesity”, said Steve Brine, public health minister at the time (he resigned in March).

The scheduling of HFSS advertising around programming commissioned for or likely to appeal particularly to children has been prohibited since 2006; however this excludes popular shows watched by youngsters, such as X Factor and Saturday Night Takeaway, which frequently feature adverts for food and drink products.

Campaigners welcomed the announcement, but UKHospitality said the proposals would harm a sector that has already been hit by a mix of rising costs, changing consumer trends and Brexit uncertainties. Stephen Woodford, chief executive at the Advertising Association, which represents advertisers and media agencies, said the continuing focus on further advertising restrictions is “founded on the misplaced belief that ‘children are bombarded by junk food advertising’”.

The Association recently published a report showing that the average child sees around 11.5 seconds of HFSS advertising on TV and online every day. Still, 23.9% of the adverts children see are for HFSS products, and the Association admitted the number could be higher.

Campaigners have a very different view of digital marketing and how brands use it to attract new, easily influenced customers. “There is strong evidence that suggests time spent online and watching TV increases the likelihood that children will ask for, buy and eat more unhealthy foods,” explained Malcolm Clark from Cancer Research UK. “If they didn’t, then the food industry wouldn’t spend so much on advertising.”

It’s a fair point. Research by the charity found that young children who spent more than half an hour a day online were almost twice as likely to pester their parents for junk food. A survey by the Obesity Health Alliance showed 72% of parents support a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts during popular family TV shows, with 70% also in favour of a similar restriction for junk food adverts online.

There is little doubt that children’s time spent online, including on social media, has increased. Hard data on the digital lives of children is scarce, however; and that means there is no clear picture of the total amount of marketing they are exposed to across all communication platforms, nor is there any information on how powerful each channel is in reaching children with marketing messages. More research is expected this year.

Monitoring the online advertising of unhealthy products to children is critical, according to WHO: the onset of noncommunicable diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, obesity and chronic respiratory disease are linked to smoking, alcohol abuse and the consumption of unhealthy food products, with the onset of these diseases “slowed or prevented” if major risk factors and behaviours are addressed during childhood.

WHO has begun promoting the need for a monitoring method known as the CLICK Tool, which would assess the extent of children’s actual exposure to digital marketing on a regular basis. Findings from the tool could help strengthen the case for national governments to take action in order to protect children from advertisements for unhealthy foods, tobacco and alcohol. “With children’s media use evolving so rapidly, it’s vital that government doubles down on advertising policy and commits to frequently reviewing and updating any new regulations,” Clark said.

The WHO/Europe report is available here.

The UK government’s consultation is available here.

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