JanUary: Food and drinks advertising’s impact on childhood obesity

Children watching TV

Dr Emma Boyland is a Lecturer in appetite and obesity at the University of Liverpool’s Institute of Psychology, Health and Society and Trustee of the UK Association for the Study of Obesity.

Professor Jason Halford is Head of the Department of Psychological Sciences, former Chair of the UK Association for the Study of Obesity and Treasurer of the European Association for the Study of Obesity. They have conducted extensive research on the effects of branding and food promotion on children’s food preferences and diet.

Recently Dr Emma Boyland and her colleague Professor Capewell were invited along with other health experts from Public Health England to present evidence and discuss recommendations to improve children’s health to the Health Select Committee:

“The ‘JanUary’ campaign aims to help promote healthy living in the UK. Living and eating healthily in the UK today is no mean feat, and it is particularly difficult for parents to encourage their children to adopt healthy eating behaviours. We are surrounded by sophisticated and attention-grabbing marketing for foods that are tasty and appealing. Our research has demonstrated that this marketing to children is extensive and exerts a powerful influence over what, and how much, children choose to eat.

Children are a key market for advertisers as they have an influence over family spending, they purchase snacks and drinks with their pocket money, and they are future adult consumers whose lifetime brand loyalty is highly coveted. Brand building starts in toddlerhood; marketing is designed to generate positive sentiment through the use of engaging imagery, characters, and attribution of likeable personality traits to brands.

This process happens through a number of avenues. Where traditionally there only television advertising exposed children to frequent promotions for unhealthy foods, today digital technologies offer unprecedented opportunities for food companies to engage with young people.

Restrictions on advertising

In 2007 the UK broadcast regulator Ofcom enacted legislative control over the marketing of unhealthy foods to children. This banned High Fat Salt Sugar (HFSS) food advertisements on dedicated children’s channels and restricted the broadcast of such adverts around programmes aimed at 4-15 year olds on any channel. These restrictions have been cited as an example to follow.

Our initial analysis (mid-implementation) of 150,000 adverts in 2008 demonstrated that on channels popular with children there was still a disproportionate amount of unhealthy food advertisements. Importantly, this was the same whether we examined children’s peak or non-peak viewing periods. Variation was seen across channel types with some particular worrying examples in sports and music dedicated TV.

In 2010 the regulations were fully implemented, and held as a gold standard, and our analysis (in submission) was repeated. Sports, family and music channels, all had more food adverts shown during children’s peak viewing time than in 2008. Across these three channel types, nearly 60% of adverts during children’s peak viewing time were for unhealthy foods, a pattern also seen on children’s channels – even though they showed far fewer food adverts.

Low number of healthy food adverts

The proportion of healthy food adverts children saw remained low (6-16% of total adverts) on those channels and little changed from 2008. Overall in 2010, fast food items were the most frequently advertised (15.2% of total food adverts, up 3.3% from 2008) and sugar-sweetened beverages were the third most frequently advertised food product (increasing from 4.6% in 2008 to 7.4%) of all food commercials.

It is understandable then why Public Health England has cited further restriction as one of a number of policy options. We must be careful not to overstate the role of food promotion in childhood obesity, but we should recognise that “efforts to prevent NCDs (non-communicable diseases) go against the business interests of powerful economic operators… this is one of the biggest challenges facing health promotion.” (Dr Margaret Chan, Director General, World Health Organization, 10 June 2013).”

Hints and tips

Here are our tips for parents to minimise the adverse effects of commercial food promotion on children’s diets:

• Reduce commercial TV viewing and use of the Internet for social media
• Talk to your children about marketing, how to recognise it and how it is persuasive
• Encourage children to be critical viewers of adverts and the claims made in them
• Limit the availability of unhealthy snack foods in the home
• Reinforce healthy eating messages and be a role model

Children watching TV


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