Food Marketing to Children
Obesity is a worldwide problem which leads to a range of adverse health problems. Once established in an individual it is difficult to reverse. Public health interventions focussing on childhood obesity aim to arrest the progression to obesity early in life. A multitude of environmental, social, psychological and physiological factors impact upon the risk of childhood obesity. For the moment I would like to focus on just one of those: Food Marketing to Children.
The majority of foods marketed to children are low in nutritional quality, high in fat, salt and sugar and pose a risk of weight gain. These products are marketed to children on billboards, in supermarkets, in magazines, on websites, in games, on social media and on television. Marketers use strategies such as repetition; association with celebrities, athletes or cartoon characters; the inclusion of toys; cross-promotions with movies or television programmes; and the use of animation or other children to make the product seem fun or interesting. Children, particularly those under the age of 7, are vulnerable as they do not have the cognitive abilities to understand the manipulative and persuasive nature of advertising.
Scientific studies on the impact of marketing on child obesity often focus on television advertisements as they are considered the most prevalent and most easily measured form of marketing. Several studies have found a relationship between children’s reported screen exposure and risk of overweight or obesity. There are several reasons why excess weight and screen time could be linked. It could be due to the sedentary effects of sitting in front of a screen rather than being active, it could also be that children carrying excess weight are simply more sedentary by nature and therefore tend to engage in more screen time (a kind of chicken or the egg situation) or it could be due to exposure to advertising for HFSS foods. Most likely it is a combination of these factors.
Because of all the factors that impact upon childhood obesity it is very difficult to design a conclusive scientific study to determine the effects of HFSS marketing on children. The relationship between food marketing exposure and development of obesity can only ever be associated. In other words we can determine that the two are related, but we cannot say that exposure to food marketing definitely causes weight gain in children.
Observational studies have been conducted in various populations around the world. Many of them using nationally representative survey data. Based on the balance of evidence to date The World Health Organization, The American Psychological Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all released policy statements in the last decade recommending regulation of food marketing aimed at children.
Statutory regulation by governments and self-regulation by industry is taking place in many countries. The typical aims of regulation are to reduce the exposure of children to HFSS food marketing. This usually occurs via restriction of advertisements during children’s television programming. Reviews of food industry self-regulation have concluded that these schemes are ineffective in reducing the exposure of children to HFSS food advertising. Government regulation has also struggled to make a difference to the obesogenic environment our children are living in. Major obstacles to the success of regulation are that children watch television during time slots not considered children’s programming and they may view broadcasts from countries or regions that do not subscribe to the regulations. Also the definitions of what is considered a HFSS food can vary.
There is also much opposition from the food industry to statutory regulation. In many countries they are politically powerful and have great lobbying power. Legally they can make a case for regulations creating barriers to trade and limiting free speech and have the funds behind them to power legal battles. Once regulations are passed the food industry employs clever marketing departments that are able to work around regulations to continue to get their messages to children. Marketing messages are increasingly delivered across multiple media which makes it difficult for regulation to keep apace. The food industry can recruit the general public to their cause by claiming that regulation is a paternalistic activity that restricts information and free-choice to the consumer. They also act to throw into doubt the science behind the relationship between marketing of HFSS foods to children and obesity and try to emphasize the importance of physical activity over diet. They claim that behaviours related to obesity are the responsibility of the individual and up to the parents to educate their children. Food industry advocates have even claimed that loss of advertising income would detrimentally affect children’s television programming.
Unless very stringent regulations are imposed by governments worldwide it seems likely that our children will continue to be exposed to HFSS food marketing. We are not completely helpless, however. As parents we can take action against the effects of food marketing by limiting the amount of commercial television our children are exposed to and educating them about the aims and methods of marketing.