The paper, published today (7 February), was produced as part of the WHO guideline development process, which provides recommendations for public health policy. It found that the majority of food marketing is focused on unhealthy products – with the proportion of junk food marketing found to be ‘generally greater than 50%’ and in some studies ‘over 90%’.
“The most frequently marketed food categories included fast food, sugar-sweetened beverages, chocolate and confectionery, salty/savoury snacks, sweet bakery items and snacks, breakfast cereals, dairy products and desserts,” the research, ‘Food marketing exposure and power and their associations with food-related attitudes, beliefs and behaviours’, revealed.
Moreover, WHO concluded, children are exposed to much of this messaging. “There was good evidence to suggest that food marketing promoting less healthy foods was prevalent in settings where children gather (e.g. schools, sports clubs) and, in the context of food marketing though the medium of TV, more frequent during children’s typical viewing times, during school holidays, on children’s channels or around children’s programming relative to other time periods, channels or programming genres”
The power of marketing
The scientific studies reviewed by WHO researchers also examined the power that these marketing messages exert over young audiences. It identified a number of tactics that the food sector employs to gain sway over younger audiences, including the use of celebrity/sports endorsements; promotional characters; promotions, gifts/incentives and tie-ins; competitions; games; colour, visual imagery and novel designs; animation, dynamic elements and special effects; branding; persuasive appeals; health/nutrition claims and disclaimers; and various other engagement techniques.
Strategies likely to appeal to children were also used more frequently to promote foods that contribute to an unhealthy diet, and during school holidays.
Looking at the impact this has on the beliefs and attitudes of children and young people, WHO revealed that there is a relationship between the entertaining and emotional way that unhealthy food is promoted influenced frequency of consumption. “As adolescents’ positive perceptions towards food advertising increased, daily frequency of consumption of foods that contribute to unhealthy diets also increased.”
WHO said that the findings raised ‘concern’ over the level of marketing children and young people are exposed to and the impact that this has on their dietary choices.
“The deceptive nature of food marketing, in relation to the techniques used was considered a concern. The findings related to awareness of, attitudes to, and perspectives on food marketing exposure and its regulation included reports of platforms and media via which children and adolescents were exposed to food marketing, concern about the volume of exposure, and support for greater regulation. Finally, among the findings related to the impact of food marketing were reports that food marketing influenced behaviours of children and adolescents, including purchasing and consumption.”
The report can be read in full here. The publication will support forthcoming WHO guidelines on policies to protect children from the harmful impact of food marketing.