The World Health Organization has just published a report where researchers and health providers analyzed how marketing encourages children to consume foods high in fats, salt, and sugars. The study focuses on the WHO European Region and calls for immediate action to change policies on marketing to protect children from unhealthy diets and prevent obesity.

The report involved several health professionals, including Dr. Emma Boyland from the University’s Institute of Psychology, Health, and Society. Among the collaborators are The Open University, WHO, University of Melbourne, and Flinders University. The research studied trends in media surrounding children and how marketing methods in the new digital media landscape affect young ones.

Kids marketing
Image credit: U.S. RKT.

WHO stated in the document that there is unequivocal evidence that childhood obesity is influenced by the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic drinks high in saturated fat, salt, and sugars, best known as HFSS. The report asks the Member States to create policies to restrict this kind of marketing in every media, including digital.

Marketing is almost stalking children: it is everywhere they go, even on mobile devices and of course on social media. Advertising has got personalized and now targets the most vulnerable. Digital platforms collect personal information from Internet users that is later used to create behavioral advertising. This kind of marketing can determine audiences with precision and search for the most vulnerable of the cyberspace, including kids.

The study found that there is little regulation regarding behavioral advertisement, which leads to the exposition of content that can be dangerous for children’s health. The food, marketing, and digital industries have access to detailed analysis of children’s behavior and exposure to HFSS. External researchers are excluded from getting this valuable information, even if they are public health officials.

The existing regulations are not enough to protect children from HFSS and the strong marketing campaigns that come with those products. Laws usually apply to pre-digital media only, ignoring the digital world which is present in almost everything a young person touches. Some laws apply only to younger children and do not protect teenagers, the most vulnerable group to HFSS advertising.

WHO recommendations on the creation of digital and traditional marketing regulations

WHO proposes eight components to create effective rules on HFSS advertisement. Among the recommendations, WHO suggests that states acknowledge their duty to protect children from HFSS advertising. Countries must take into consideration that if they already have laws on advertising to protect kids, they have to extend those regulations to the digital world.

Laws regarding HFSS marketing should be clear on what is marketing directed for children and how old has to be a kid to be legally exposed to it. Regulations to address the issue should also ban brands from using Internet platforms for HFSS marketing. WHO suggests that international regulations are necessary, including monetary sanctions to those who target young ones to consume HFSS products.

Kids marketing
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child states that children have the right to participate and be protected from digital media. Image credit: Ingredients Network.

Laws should protect kids that are involved in digital media and protect their privacy and health. Economically exploit the younger cannot be allowed, but the lack of regulations on media and digital advertising is failing to do this.  

States have the responsibility of protecting children while they are exposed to the digital world. Countries should prohibit companies to target kids with unhealthy media to avoid diseases like obesity in the young population. Even with parents approval, regulations should not allow companies to call the attention of children and teenagers to consume their HFSS products.

HFSS advertising: A reality that is sickening our children

The ultimate goal of digital HFSS marketing is to approach children in emotional and entertaining ways and encourage them to spread the desire for HFSS products among other young people.

Brands and marketers report that digital marketing amplifies advertising in traditional media as well, which makes the unhealthy message of HFSS get more attention, greater brand awareness and more positive brand attitudes, says the WHO report. Once the HFSS products get more attention, the unhealthy food or drink get greater interest and higher product sales.

The report found evidence showing that HFSS marketing in traditional media affects children’s eating behavior. Early studies also suggest that the same happens with digital marketing. Both traditional and digital advertising have a negative influence on young people, making them include in their diets unhealthy products which contribute to obesity.

Source: World Health Organization