We need to protect children from the power of advertising

23 January 2020 | Health policy

Caroline Cerny of the Obesity Health AllianceTo celebrate the launch of our report on restricting the marketing of junk food to children, Caroline Cerny, Alliance Lead at the Obesity Health Alliance (OHA), shines a light on the murky world of junk food advertising.

The word ‘advert’ is derived from the Latin verb ‘advertere’, meaning to turn towards, and this is exactly what advertising does. It puts a product or a message in the spotlight, to secure our attention.

Food advertising is extremely successful at turning us towards unhealthy products, making sure they are centre stage in our minds. Evidence is clear that this attention grabbing translates into eating behaviour, with recent research showing that seeing just 4.4 minutes of junk food advertising leads to children eating an extra 60 calories. And with one in three children now leaving primary school with a weight classified as overweight or obese, it's vital we take steps to curb the impact of junk food advertising as part of a broader strategy to help children stay a healthy weight.

Advert overload

The cover of WCRF's new report on the marketing of unhealthy food to children

The situation online is particularly complex. As advertisers have no definitive way of knowing who is watching their adverts, they rely on targeting tools based on the likely user’s interest. But there is a huge amount of crossover in what children and adults are interested in, meaning children watching videos about celebrities, bands and sport are likely to see HFSS adverts.

In today’s multimedia world, children are exposed to advertising everywhere they go. From bus stop and billboard adverts on their way to school, to TV adverts before and during their favourite shows, online adverts cleverly designed to look like organic content or their favourite influencer promoting a new brand of biscuit.

In the UK there is some regulation aimed at limiting children’s exposure to adverts for food and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), but this is limited and only applies to TV programmes or websites made just for children or where children are disproportionately represented in the audience. This means it excludes swathes of TV shows and online content that is popular with both adults and children.

For example, Britain’s Got Talent is one of the most popular TV programmes with children, regularly watched by over a million children. The OHA analysed all the adverts shown before 9pm during one week of episodes and found one in five adverts were for an HFSS product. One single episode included four and a half minutes of adverts for unhealthy food and drink – including pizza, burgers, ice cream, cake and chocolate biscuits.

The digital battlefield

The current system is over-complicated and ineffective. But there is a simple solution. A 9pm watershed on HFSS advertising across all audio-visual media would create a clear cut-off point. This would give control back to parents and still give advertisers freedom to promote their healthier products before 9pm.

This policy has enormous support from healthcare professionals and public health experts, and has benefited from high-profile celebrities such as Jamie Oliver and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall campaigning for it, building support with politicians and parents. Over 70 per cent of the public say they would welcome a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts.

If it’s so simple, why are we still talking about it?

The advertising and food industry are lobbying hard against the policy. More than anyone, they know the power of advertising and are reluctant to change the status quo, despite the impact it' is having on our children’s health.

This is a situation that is reflected around the world. The new Building Momentum report brings together vital information on evidence, regulatory approaches and tactics to address industry interference, providing a vital playbook for the global advocacy community to work together and learn from each other to hopefully finally make sure junk food adverts are no longer in the spotlight.

Caroline Cerny | 23 January 2020