Building a Case for Regulations on Youth-Targeted Food Marketing

Building a Case for Regulations on Youth-Targeted Food Marketing: The Time Is Now

Nearly four decades have passed since the US government’s last attempt to intervene with and regulate food marketing targeted at children. Meanwhile, a new age of food marketing has emerged in the last few years as a result of increasing access to technology. Children are no longer passive recipients to advertising and now interact with companies through online marketing and in-app advertisements. Licensing deals with popular children’s characters through media companies, like Disney, are used to reach increasingly younger audiences. Companies have begun infiltrating social networks and gaining access to personal data from young Internet users. Food and beverage companies rely on tracking mechanisms to understand youth preferences.

Establishing a Link: The Impact of Research on Building Awareness

The power, reach, and effects of food marketing on children have dramatically increased in recent years, and so have the concerns from parents and the attention that health specialists are paying to this growing phenomenon. Scientists are beginning to establish a link between food advertisements and food consumption and drawing connections between food marketing and the growing childhood obesity epidemic.

As recently as last month, research has been rolling in to support a potential decision to regulate food marketing aimed at children. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, published in January 2016, found that unhealthy food advertising exposure over television and Internet significantly increased food consumption in children. The study concluded that “recommendations for enacting environmental strategies and policy options to reduce children’s exposure to food advertising are evidence-based and warranted.”

Back in 1978 when the US last regulated the food marketing to children, politicians may have had inclinations that the prevalence of junk food marketing might be somehow related to noticeable hike in obesity rates in the US, but now in 2016 the growing research accumulated on the subject is finally supporting those intuitions. Armed with this recent data, health advocates should encourage agency officials and political leaders to revisit the need for increased regulations on youth-targeted marketing tactics used by fast food, snack food, and soft drink companies.

The Troubling Health Effects of Food Marketing Aimed at Children

The need for action has become urgent. Childhood obesity is now a leading public health concern in the US, with rates more than doubling among children and quadrupling among adolescents in the past 30 years. Today, more than one third of youths (more than 23 million total) are overweight or obese. While exercise has become the focus of recent media and political campaigns to improve the health of the nation’s children, diet and eating habits play a significant role, and the effect of food marketing on children’s diet cannot be overlooked.

Food marketing has the ability to affect children’s eating habits in three ways: (1) by targeting parents in an effort to convince them to purchase certain products for their children, (2) by increasing the “pester power” of children (i.e. encouraging children to persuade their parents to purchase products for them), and (3) by encouraging children and teens to use their own money to purchase products. The latter two are particularly problematic as they specifically target the children and take advantage of their relatively vulnerable state. In fact, scientists have found parallels between the craving responses elicited by drugs and those elicited by food cues, including the mere exposure to the sight of certain food through visual advertisements. Worse yet, marketing aimed at children has long-reaching effects because food preferences and behaviors are typically developed during childhood and can be very difficult to override later in life.

Multiple studies have emerged in recently years drawing a connection between food marketing and obesity among children. In 2005, the Institute of Medicine released a study called Food Marketing to Children and Youth: Threat or Opportunity?, which performed an exhaustive review of the scientific evidence on food marketing and obesity. The researchers found that food and beverage marketing to children ages 12 and under had a heightened effect on their consumption of high calorie, low nutrient foods. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, three-quarters (73%) of the foods advertised on children’s TV shows intended for children are for fast foods and sweets. The effect of advertising is even stronger on younger children because children under the age of 8 are unable to “recognize the persuasive intent of ads and tend to accept them as accurate and unbiased.”

The Social Justice Implications of Food Marketing Tactics

Not only does food marketing lead to negative health effects, but it also implicates social justice and racial justice concerns. The food and beverage industry’s marketing tactics are not equally felt across the nation’s children: youth of color are disproportionately harmed. Black and Latino children are statistically more likely to be overexposed to food marketing and as a result have been found to consume higher levels of junk food and fast food. In his book Social Justice and the Urban Obesity Crisis, Melvin Delgado, Co-Director of the Center of Addictions Research and Services, explores the health, social, and economic consequences of obesity and the effect that marketing has on youth from minority backgrounds. A 2008 study cited in the book found that African Americans were more likely to be exposed to marketing for foods and drinks high in calories when compared to other racial groups. Not only are youth of color more exposed to junk food marketing than their white counterparts, but research has also shown that “minority youth are more interested in, and positive towards, media and marketing than non-Hispanic Whites” and that youth from minority populations “respond more favorably to ethnically targeted marketing than white youth.” A study of Latino children conducted in 2009 showed that children who were overweight were more able to recognize the logos of fast food restaurants when compared to other food logos.

And this unequal effect of food marketing tactics is not simply unintended or coincidental: large players in the food and beverage industry and digital marketers have prioritized strategies targeted at ethnic youth. A research group backed by companies, such as McDonald’s, Kraft, and PepsiCo, has identified Latinos as “the most important U.S. demographic growth driver in the food, beverage, and restaurant sectors.” Advertising experts are studying how to reach “multicultural markets” and counseling their food and beverage industry clients on how to take advantage of the fact that “African-American, Hispanic, and Asian consumers download more mobile ringtones, games and images than their white counterparts.” Furthermore, billboards and other outdoor advertisements for unhealthy foods around child-serving institutions have been positively associated with race and are predominantly found in poor and working class communities of color.

Let’s Start Calling for Intervention

It’s time to build a case for new regulations against food marketing to children. Almost two generations of individuals in the United States have grown up in a society without accountability, enforcement, and oversight over the tactics that the food and beverage industry uses to market their products to children. We’ve seen it done with tobacco through restrictions on cigarette advertising and promotion, and now we must begin to acknowledge that food marketing targeted at children has similarly strong links to public health concerns and that restricting junk food advertisements may be a necessary first step to loosen the hold that the food and beverage industry has on the nation’s youth.

Part II of this series will explore what regulatory challenges must be tackled to begin regulating food marketing to children and the power that the food and beverage industry wields over independent agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. Part III will analyze common legal arguments against the regulations, such as claims that the advertisements are commercial free speech, and discuss how these legal responses can be addressed. There are powerful actors at play here, but the battle is worth choosing—regulations could have a profound effect on the health of children in the US, particularly those already living in vulnerable and under-resourced communities.


Nadia Arid

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