Tough new regulations to protect children’s health by restricting digital marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to them were demanded today (Wednesday June 15) at the launch of a groundbreaking new report for the Irish Heart Foundation exposing the hidden tactics being used to target children online.
The study titled Who’s Feeding The Kids Online led by child psychologist and researcher Dr Mimi Tatlow-Golden, reveals the sophisticated digital marketing techniques directed at children by the top food and beverage brands and how little parents know about the efforts being made to influence their children.
The Irish Heart Foundation report, which includes the first known research in Europe into the marketing techniques of top brands most popular with young teens on Facebook, will be submitted to Minister for Communications, Climate Change and Natural Resources Denis Naughten this week.
Its findings are already being examined by the World Health Organisation, a strong and consistent global advocate for action to reduce children’s exposure to junk food marketing. WHO nutrition and food marketing regulation expert Jo Jewell today addressed a seminar in Dublin organised by the Irish Heart Foundation to coincide with the publication of the report.
Also speaking at the launch, Dr Tatlow-Golden said: “Junk food companies and some of the world’s best marketing brains are targeting children with subtle, sophisticated and surreptitious methods in an environment where parents don’t know what’s going on – and can’t easily find out.
“We know that marketing of products high in fat, sugar or salt plays a causal role in obesity. That is why there are some restrictions on TV advertising to children – though children in Ireland still see thousands of unhealthy food ads every year on TV. Now, junk food companies are magnifying the known effects of broadcast advertising, by using the ‘3 Es’ – powerfulengagement-, emotional– and entertainment-based tactics – in digital media. They also use hi tech analytics to target children directly: in the digital world, they can identify those who are most reactive to food and drink marketing and thus target the most vulnerable children.
“In that light the Government has no option but to regulate digital marketing of junk food. The alternative is to allow children’s long-term health to be put at severe and continuing risk.”
The report found many of the big food and beverage brands are not now using websites to promote their products to children – with just one in ten top retail brands in Ireland having sites with child-directed content – although one in five still had content appealing to older children and teens, virtually all for items high in fat, salt or sugar.
However the picture changed dramatically on Facebook where all the food and beverage brand pages with the greatest reach among 13-14 year old users in Ireland are for brands that feature unhealthy products. These brands actively seek to recruit Facebook users to spread their marketing – seeking likes, tags, comments and photos and providing many links and hashtags.
Brands use tactics with strong appeal to children and young people –featuring bold graphics and strong visuals, competitions, a strong emphasis on humour, fun and ‘special days’, links to entertainment, festivals, sports and other events, and regularly featuring sports stars and celebrities popular with children.
An online survey of parents of 13-14 year olds conducted as part of the report showed that although parents had generally positive attitudes to marketing, and were initially indifferent to the idea of food marketing to children online, their attitudes shifted after they were shown digital food and drink marketing examples. Ultimately, three-quarters of the surveyed parents were strongly against digital marketing of unhealthy products to their children and terms they used to describe the tactics included immoral, dishonest and exploitative.
Dr Tatlow-Golden said the parents surveyed were particularly hostile to two types of digital media marketing tactics. They reacted very negatively to brands in social media that encouraged children to ‘tag’ their friends or share brand posts with their networks. Parents were also very hostile to sports stars and other celebrities promoting unhealthy products. They felt role models for young people were unlikely to use these products frequently themselves and so this advertising was misleading. These included an advertisement by Irish rugby star Sean O’Brien for Supermac’s burgers and the singer Rita Ora’s YouTube promotion of Coca-Cola.
Irish Heart Foundation Head of Advocacy, Chris Macey said: “Social media platforms could take action immediately to stop marketing unhealthy food to children in line with Ireland’s existing broadcast media regulations. The very nature of targeted online marketing means that social media companies could instantly change their advert settings to stop this advertising to under-18s.”
The report recommends that existing regulations protecting children from unhealthy advertising should be extended to all media, that existing loopholes in regulations should be closed, and that celebrities should be banned from promoting products that are high in fat, salt and sugar, among other recommendations.