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Call for global restrictions in marketing of unhealthy food to children

Young boy eating hamburger

An OU researcher calls for greater global restrictions in the marketing of unhealthy food to children globally through findings available this month (November 2021).

A study published by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) on 11 November 2021: Unhealthy digital food marketing to children in the Philippines, led by Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden, with Dr Emma Boyland at the University of Liverpool, identified marketing of foods and non-alcoholic drinks (‘food’) via social media. The study comprehensively examined food marketing strategies on digital media in the Philippines. It also investigated whether marketing to children under 18 was permitted according to World Health Organization (WHO) regional recommendations.

Dr Tatlow-Golden said: “The Philippines report systematically analyses social media food marketing in a country where this hasn’t been done before. It was based on a rigorous set of WHO Protocols that we have developed for this purpose, so it is comparable to other regions.

“Our findings show that 99% of 1035 food marketing posts and videos on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube, for the top 20 Philippines food and restaurant brands, was not recommended for marketing to children, according to WHO criteria. This really is shocking, as in Europe we tend to see unhealthy marketing represents about two-thirds of food marketing overall. So, children in the Philippines are being fed an even more unhealthy ‘advertised diet’ than in a wealthier world region.”

Commenting on these findings and their relevance to global marketing of unhealthy food to children, Dr Tatlow-Golden said: “Very similar foods and marketing strategies are applied across the East Asia region and globally. Food marketing is fun and so brilliantly designed. It links ultra-processed unhealthy foods and drinks with pleasure, family love, friendship, and healthy activities. It was interesting that in the Philippines ads, family love, fun and closeness were a stronger feature of this marketing than we would see in Western Europe – reflecting Filipino culture. But just like elsewhere, children told the Philippines researchers that they don’t really like ads on the internet generally – but they do like ads for unhealthy foods, and they ask their parents to buy them.”

The two-method study involved a social media content analysis with nutrient profiling and media strategy analyses, plus a small survey of children aged 5 to 17 years old in two regions in the Philippines.

In an earlier study, the results of which came out last year, Dr Tatlow-Golden’s research with teens themselves, See Like, Share, Remember, found that teens pay attention to social media marketing for longer if is for unhealthy food – compared to healthy food and popular non-food items. They remember unhealthy food items better when asked about them later. They are also more likely to share unhealthy food marketing themselves – and, interestingly, they rate peers more positively if they have unhealthy food marketing on their profiles.

Dr Tatlow-Golden concludes:

“Robust research tells us that marketing increases children’s wanting, asking, buying and eating of these foods – by enough to affect their health over time. Targeted marketing in digital media is sneaky and parents aren’t aware of what their kids are seeing.

“And it’s particularly pernicious in countries where many children don’t have access to healthy nutritious food. Now a story of pleasure and fun is being woven around unhealthy highly-processed diet across the globe, and we are seeing overweight and obesity rise rapidly. This is a global problem that affects the health and wellbeing of children around the world.”

Watch an animation of the effect of unhealthy food on children:

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