A groundbreaking campaign enlisting public support to force action restricting relentless junk food marketing directed at children, particularly on social media, was launched by Irish Heart on Wednesday, March 1st.
The Stop Targeting Kids campaign is seeking to sign up 30,000 supporters to back its call for Government intervention to protect children’s health through strict controls, particularly on digital marketing, which remains unregulated in spite of clear evidence of its powerful influence over children’s food choices.
The new campaign is based around the use of fake sweet, crisps and cola brands to expose the unscrupulous tactics used by junk food and drinks companies to influence children and the inappropriate proximity their brands have to young people, mostly without the knowledge of parents.
Irish Heart’s Head of Advocacy Chris Macey said: “The purpose of our campaign is to show parents how multinational junk brands can follow their children wherever they go – in school, at home and even in their bedrooms through their smart phones. It’s almost like your child has their own individual marketer following them around. They get onto children’s newsfeeds and interact like real friends. But all these marketers really want to do is encourage children to consume as much junk as possible, regardless of the impact on their health. These often hidden tactics are almost impossible for parents to see which is a key impetus for this campaign.
“There’s conclusive proof of a causal link between junk food marketing to children and childhood obesity. That’s why it was partially regulated on broadcast media four years ago. But there’s no regulation of digital marketing that’s more personalised, targeted and therefore potentially far more damaging. That’s not good enough. We now have children as young as eight with high blood pressure and young people showing early signs of heart disease mainly seen in middle-age.
“We believe the Government is failing in its duty of care to protect children from the damage that junk brand advertising is having on their health and we are seeking the public’s support to force stronger action by signing our petition (www.irishheart.ie/stk ).”
The Stop Targeting Kids petition is the latest step in the charity’s fight to protect children from obesity following their research published last summer ‘Who’s Feeding the Kids Online’. In that report, Irish Heart exposed how junk food companies were targeting children in a much more individualised way online than they ever could through television advertising, using hi tech analytics to target children directly. Using analytics, multinational companies can identify those who are most reactive to food and drink marketing and extract huge amounts of personal information about individual children: who they are, where they live, where they go, what they do, what they like, what their hobbies are and what their friends tag them with.
Armed with this information junk food marketers use the 3Es – powerful engagement, emotional and entertainment based tactics to connect with children online. This is based around a strong emphasis on fun and humour, on special days, links to entertainment, festivals, sports and other events. They also regularly feature sports stars and celebrities popular with children.
To illustrate and expose the marketing tactics used on children online, which are often hard for adults to encounter, Irish Heart has created fake junk brands Chew Chew, O’Spud and Colarade. We use happy, colourful, fun-loving characters – a technique common among real junk brands. But behind this facade lurks a cold, humourless and more sinister brand personality, one more in tune to the inappropriate proximity of junk food and drink brands marketing unhealthy products to children. The campaign also features a fake brand manager for the fake products in a series of short videos parodying specific marketing strategies used in real life junk food brands.
Irish Heart dietitian Janis Morrissey said: “One in four children in Ireland is overweight or obese. It is a daily struggle and a minefield for parents trying to navigate an environment with widespread availability and constant marketing of cheap and convenient foods. The effect of real marketing characters parodied by Chew Chew is to associate positive emotions and excitement with junk brands that see them added to children’s news feeds encouraging unhealthy eating habits.
“This marketing is clever because characters like Chew Chew can interact with children just like they’re real friends. The brands become part of children’s social lives and they even get children to act as marketers for them by tagging their friends in to ads, and posting messages and pictures of themselves. It is really worrying to think that 7 to 16 year olds are spending about 3 hours a day online, vulnerable to slick marketing that’s pushing foods and drinks that are causing obesity.
“Multinationals say treats are for eating in moderation and we are calling for that same moderation to apply to their marketing tactics so they stop targeting kids. We owe it to children to step in because it is not okay for multinational companies to seek them out and follow their lives in order to push high sugar, high fat or high salt foods. I strongly urge parents who share our concern to sign our petition on www.irishheart.ie/stk.”
Join Irish Heart’s Stop Targeting Kids petition and support their call for:
- A comprehensive statutory system of regulation for online unhealthy food and drinks marketing directed at children.
- Loopholes should be closed in existing TV regulations, particularly increasing the timing of the advert ban up to the 9pm watershed. The need for this is highlighted by the fact that despite the current ban up to 6pm, children still see an average of over 1,000 advertisements for unhealthy food and drinks on television alone each year.
What are junk brands?
Junk brands are typically pre-prepared, packaged or convenience foods that are high in calories but of low nutritional value. These products are usually high in fat, salt or sugar and low in fibre, vitamins and minerals.
The five most heavily marketed categories of foods to children are sugary cereals, soft drinks, confectionary, savoury snacks and fast food outlets. These treats are laden with sugar, salt and fat – 30g of chocolate-covered cereal has 3 teaspoons of sugar, 500ml of fizzy orange has 16 teaspoons of sugar and a typical 31g chocolate bar has 7.5 teaspoons of sugar. Meanwhile a 20g bag of crisps has 0.5g of salt and a kids cheeseburger has almost 2 teaspoons of saturated fat.
Typically children aged 4-6 years should have no more than 5 teaspoons of sugar, 3g of salt and 4 teaspoons of saturated fat. For older children up to 11 years, no more than 6 teaspoons of sugar, 5g of salt and 4 teaspoons of saturated fat is recommended.
Useful facts and stats:
- One in four school children is overweight or obese in Ireland.
- Eight percent of 8-10 year olds who took part in the Cork Children’s Lifestyle Studywere recorded as having high blood pressure, the single biggest risk factor for heart disease and stroke.
- 7-16 year olds spend approximately 3 hours a day online and yet there is only weak voluntary self regulation by industry.
- Partial regulation of marketing to children on television and radio was introduced in Ireland by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland in 2013 until 6pm only where 50% of the audience is made up of under 18s. The code doesn’t take into account televised sports events or later family programmes popular with children including music talent shows like X Factor or the Voice of Ireland.
- 2 in 3 people report they consume snack foods or sugar sweetened drinks daily with 26% of children having sweets and 12% having soft drinks daily.
- Sugar sweetened drinks are the most consumed beverage in Ireland with over a third of 15-24 year olds drinking SSDs most days or daily.
- Research in 2016 concluded that children in Ireland still watch an average of more than 1,000 ads for unhealthy food and drinks annually on television alone.
- The Bogalusa Heart Study showed that three quarters of obese children remain obese as adults and are at greater risk of an adult life dominated by chronic disease or premature death.
 Growing Up in Ireland report, Department of Children
 Cork Children’s Lifestyle Study, http://www.ucc.ie/en/epid/rese
 Childwise Monitor report 2016
 Who’s Feeding the Kids Online report 2016
 Broadcasting Authority of Ireland
 The Irish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Study 2010
 Department of Health (2010)
 Institute of Public Health in Ireland (2016)
 The Irish Journal of Psychology: Creating good feelings about unhealthy food
 The Bogalusa Heart Study (1978), Cardiovascular disease risk factor variables at the preschool age.