These days most parents are acutely aware that their children are seen as a valuable market by a wide range of manufacturers. But many may be unaware of the level of sophistication used by the marketing departments of large food and drink companies to sell their products, which are often high in fat, sugar or salt.
Last month, World Cancer Research Fund (WCRF) Health Promotion Officer Rachel Clark attended a conference organised by the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO), which looked at the marketing of unhealthy foods to children, and returned with some shocking reports, some of which were highlighted in yesterday’s Daily Mail.
Among the tactics used by firms to target children are: the use of online games (known as ‘advergames’), often on websites owned by the advertiser; utilising social media sites such as Facebook: employing cartoon characters (like Tony the Tiger) and other images designed to appeal to kids on packaging; mobile phone marketing; and event sponsorship, particularly of high-profile sporting occasions (think Coca-Cola and McDonald’s involvement with the Olympics).
Children are also recruited by companies to act as ‘brand representatives’ to promote products to their friends.
Jane Landon, the Deputy Chief Executive of the National Heart Forum, told the conference that much of this marketing took place online where self-regulatory rules do not hold much sway.
Many of these methods bypass parental control completely and appeal to youngsters who are not old enough to understand that they are being sold something, particularly when it’s in the form of a game or some other fun activity. Sheffield University’s Dr Mark Blades described how children can distinguish TV advertising from programmes by the age of five but even at the age of 12 will have difficulty drawing the same distinction on a web page.
The conference also heard how the multi-million pound junk food marketing machine is easily surpassing the efforts of charities, the government and other bodies promoting healthy eating.
Prof Charlie Lewis, of the University of Lancaster, said NHS campaigns like 5 A Day and Change for Life were having little impact on childhood obesity while brand games and entertainment are having a powerful influence on children’s choices.
And IASO Director of Policy Dr Tim Lobstein criticised self-regulation among food and drink manufacturers, calling the system “ambiguous” and its results “questionable”. He told the Mail: “Companies can now use new technologies to encourage children to market to each other and bypass any parental controls.”
The findings of the IASO compliment the 12 recommendations of last year’s World Health Assembly regarding the marketing of food and drink to children.
This listed the following ways in which children are targeted by companies: advertising; sponsorship; product placement; sales promotion; cross promotion using celebrities; brand mascots or characters popular with children; websites; packaging and labelling; point of purchase displays; emails and text messages; viral marketing; and, finally, good old word-of-mouth.
WCRF is concerned about the UK’s increasingly overweight population as being overweight is a major factor in developing cancer. This is why we encourage healthy eating and physical activity in children as a healthy childhood is likely to transfer into a healthy adulthood.