‘Curb junk food ads targeting kids at most vulnerable’, says WHO report

Covert tracking of children’s emotions by junk food marketers intrusively preys on kids at their most vulnerable and must be stopped, an internationally respected Flinders researcher says.

Flinders University Law Professor Elizabeth Handsley is co-author of a World Health Organisation report “Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives”.

With junk food advertising’s role in increasing childhood obesity now firmly established, and with little being done to regulate the marketers doing the damage, the World Health Organisation report has called for its members to take steps to reduce children’s exposure to all such marketing.

The report: “Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives”, which is co-authored by Flinders University Law Professor Elizabeth Handsley, calls on WHO member states to restrict marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages high in saturated fat, salt and/or free sugars (HFSS) to children, including in digital media, and to close any regulatory loopholes.

It specifically mentions digital advertisers’ collection of extensive personal information from internet users, including children, to deliver “behavioural advertising” that targets vulnerable consumers.

Brands and marketers themselves have reported that digital marketing (including for HFSS foods) amplifies advertising in traditional media, achieving greater ad attention and recall, greater brand awareness and more positive brand attitudes, greater intent to purchase and higher product sales.

“The algorithms of the major platforms give preference to less overt, longer-viewed advertisements that far exceed the media literacy children might have to filter them,” said Professor Handsley.

“Marketers are using fine-grained analyses of children’s behaviour and exposure to HFSS to great effect. Critically, this information is not made available to those of us who might wish to ensure the health and wellbeing of the children it is being used to target.

Professor Handsley said existing regulations frequently apply to predigital media only, to younger children, not to adolescents, and often do not address the complex challenges of supra-national regulation of global media.

She said a rights-based approach to childhood obesity and regulation of digital marketing must consider the rights of children under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

The WHO report provides up-to-date information on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children and the changes that have occurred in recent years, focusing in particular on the major shift to digital marketing.

It examines trends in media use among children, marketing methods in the new digital media landscape and children’s engagement with such marketing.

It also considers the impact on children and their ability to counter marketing as well as the implications for children’s digital privacy.

Finally the report discusses the policy implications and some of the recent policy action by WHO European Member States

“This report has brought together a range of important information about what is happening with digital marketing of food and beverages to children, including the techniques that are being used and the meagre regulatory responses so far,” said Professor Handsley.

“Regulation is seen as important as one means of addressing childhood obesity, because the foods marketed are disproportionately those that children should consume only rarely, if at all.

“Interestingly, the report uses a children’s rights framework: this means that action to protect children’s health as media consumers is not seen as a matter of charity, but one of international obligation.”

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