Children from the United States view an average of one food commercial for every five minutes of television watched, according to a study from the University of Minnesota. Unfortunately, these youth-targeted advertisements focus predominately on foods high in sugar and fat, such as fast food, high-sugar cereals, sugary drinks, and candy, making it no surprise that many children are not consuming healthy diets. In response to the high levels of junk-food advertising, some countries are taking the issue into their own hands by restricting broadcast advertising and other child-targeted marketing techniques.
According to the World Health Organization, advertisements can significantly influence food preferences and consumption. The impact is especially acute for young children under 10 years old, who tend to view ads as unbiased sources of information, making it more difficult for them to respond judiciously to marketing, found researchers from the University of Minnesota.
Furthermore, food marketers have expanded and intensified marketing efforts through a variety of channels in recent decades. “Parents’ efforts to help their children eat healthily are being undermined by sophisticated promotion of junk food to children: on TV, online, at the cinema, in magazines, in supermarkets, on food packaging, and for some even at school,” says Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign, a United Kingdom-based organization that aims to protect children from junk-food marketing.
Anne Lappé, founder of Food MythBusters, a food-focused media initiative, accuses food companies of pushing cheap, addictive foods on children and teens in the name of profit. “Food corporations spend roughly two billion a year on ads specifically targeting children and teens,” says Lappé in a Food MythBusters video. “No wonder pediatricians are seeing diet-related illnesses of young people alarmingly on the rise.”
Some countries have pursued voluntary, industry-led pledges restricting advertising. The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, EU Pledge, and Children’s Advertising Initiative in the United States, European Union member states, and Canada, respectively, are composed of candy, fast-food, and soft drink companies who pledge to shift their marketing to healthier foods for children under 12. Critics say that these policies are ineffective since industries set the bar too low given the highly competitive marketplace. However, EU Pledge participants claim that children’s exposure to television marketing has fallen 48 percent and that U.S. industry spending on child food marketing has dropped by 19.5 percent since the pledges were enacted.
But governments can play a greater role in limiting the harmful public health impacts of food advertising by implementing legislation that restricts broadcasting, bans the use of cartoons and toys, or requires health warnings on commercials. This week, Food Tank highlights eight countries that have taken steps to limit the harmful impact of junk-food marketing.
Quebec's law passed in 1980 restricting junk-food marketing to kids was the first of its kind, banning fast food marketing aimed at children under 13 in print and electronic media. Fast-food expenditures subsequently decreased 13 percent. While the rest of Canada has seen a drastic increase in obesity among children, Quebec maintains the lowest child obesity rate.
Chilean law restricts advertising which targets children under the age of 14 for foods considered high in calories, saturated fat, sugar, and sodium. The regulation applies to television programs, websites, radios, and magazines directed at children or those where the audience is composed of 20 percent children or more. Likewise, these select food items may not be marketed in schools. Promotional strategies including the use of cartoons and toys are also prohibited.
Rather than setting restrictions on the amount of junk-food advertising, French authorities require that advertisements for products containing added fats, sweeteners, or sodium be accompanied by a message explaining dietary principles. One example is “for your health, eat at least five fruits and vegetables a day.”
Foods high in fats, sugar, and sodium are banned from advertising, sponsorship, teleshopping, and product placement in children’s TV and radio programs where over 50 percent of the audience is under 18 years old. Any advertising targeting children under 18 cannot include celebrities, and those directed to children under 13 cannot include health claims or use licensed characters. Overall, advertisements for unhealthy foods may compose up to only 25 percent of all paid advertising on all channels.
The Mexican government commission reports that their children see more junk-food advertisements than any other country, totaling 12,000 a year. The Ministry of Health has taken a series of steps to limit child exposure to unhealthy food marketing, beginning with restricting advertising of certain foods and sweetened beverages, determined by their compliance to a nutrient profile model. Restrictions apply to television programs with more than 35 percent of the audience under 13 years old, between 2:30 pm and 7:30 pm on weekdays and 7:00 am and 7:30 pm on weekends. In July 2014, the government extended the restriction to films.
The Norwegian government restricts all broadcast advertising directed specifically to children through the Broadcasting Act of 1992. In 2013, industry and government took a step further: companies agreed to a self-regulated ban on all marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children under the age of 16. Norway also leads a World Health Organization network of 28 countries focused on reducing marketing pressures on children.
In January 2016, Taiwan implemented unhealthy food advertising limits for kids under 12 years old. Dedicated television channels for children cannot broadcast advertisements of foods exceeding set fat, sodium, and sugar content limits from 5 pm to 9 pm. Like their Chilean counterparts, food marketers cannot promote their products with free toys at restaurants, a common practice among fast food chains.
A decade ago, the government passed a statutory ban on television advertising to children under 16 of foods high in fats, sugar, and salt. According to the UK Department of Health, children are now exposed to 37 percent fewer commercials and annual expenditures towards child-targeted advertisements have decreased 41 percent.