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The big debate: Marketing junk food to children

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

The marketing of food that is high in fat, sugar and salt has been linked to increased child obesity - but food and drink companies disagree.
The marketing of food that is high in fat, sugar and salt has been linked to increased child obesity - but food and drink companies disagree.

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Marketing 'junk' food to children is raising blood pressure all round - and that's just the debate. FoodNavigator looks at some of the arguments that have been made in recent years and asks you, the reader, what you think.

A ban on TV advertising from 9pm onwards, alleged conflicts of interest between industry and advertising regulators, repeated advertising breaches going unpunished...

Marketing unhealthy food to children is a contentious issue and the stakes are high - a multi-billion euro global industry and the health of children. In the UK alone, one third of children are now overweight or obese.

We look at some of the key arguments made by industry, campaigners and parents.

Does food marketing really have a direct effect on food choices?

unhealthy junk food snack sweet

The Children’s Food Campaign says it does - and not only for a specific brand. It has been proven that advertisements affect food choices at both brand and category level, so a Burger King burger advert is likely not only to make a person more likely to buy a branded Burger King burger over another brand, but also more likely to buy a burger per se.”

In a 2005 report​ the US Institute of Medicine wrote that food marketing has a “modest direct effect”​ on the food choices, preferences and behaviours of children and it is likely that this impact is greater on children aged two to eleven years old.

Regulation in many EU countries already prevents industry from advertising around children’s TV programmes – surely this is enough?

children TV boy

Managing director of the World Federation of Advertisers, Stephan Loerke, writing in an article on​, ​said there has been a sustained fall in the number of junk food adverts across all types of programmes.

Since 2005, independent data shows that on average, children are exposed to 83% less high fat, salt and sugar foods around children’s programmes, 48% less across all programmes and 32% less ads for all company products, irrespective of the products’ nutritional value,” ​he writes.

But the Children’s Food Campaign argues that family-friendly programmes that are aired during primetime, such as the UK's 'talent show' X-Factor, mean that children are still being exposed to advertising for unhealthy food, and is calling for a 9pm watershed.

Is it not parents’ responsibility for what their children watch on TV?

family tv food eating

Following calls from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) for a pre-watershed junk food ban earlier this year, Ian Twinn, director of public affairs at ISBA - a trade body which represents British Advertisers - responded to the BHF​:

"Food is protected in advertising (…)If children are seeing ads parents do not approve of, then they are seeing them in adult programming. That is an issue of parental responsibility. If there is no advertising, then there will be no commercial programming (…) Someone has to pay for this. The British Heart Foundation has its head in the sand over this."

But a report by the European Heart Network says:  “[Parents’] responsibility is exceedingly difficult to exercise bearing in mind that children are constantly exposed to HFSS food marketing. There is a societal responsibility to ensure that children are brought up in a healthy environment.”

Industry is self-regulating so is there really a need for government regulation?

courts legal law case

The EU Pledge​, a voluntary initiative by food and drink companies to change the way they advertise to children says that self-regulation – such as its own – is effective when it is independently assessed.

In response to a FoodWatch report earlier this year, the EU Pledge said: “[Our] criteria have been independently assessed by the European Heart Network (EHN), which found them to be at least as strict as the statutory nutrient profiling system applicable in the UK.”

But in a report​ published this week, the EHN said the Pledge was limited by its voluntary status.  

“Self-regulation is voluntary: it is neither legally binding nor legally enforceable. The EU Pledge does not apply to all operators and it contains significant gaps (in relation to the children protected; the media, the programmes and the marketing techniques covered; and the categorisation of food.”

Are the independent regulators really independent?

money corporate tax

CAP says that it while it is funded by advertisers, it maintains a distance from advertisers to prevent any conflict of interest.

Its website explains: “The [funding] levy is set at 0.1% of advertising space costs and (…) is collected at arms-length to maintain the independence of the system. It ensures that the system is properly funded, whilst ensuring that CAP, BCAP and ASA regulatory decisions are not influenced by who may or may not be funding the system.”

But according to the UK’s Children’s Food Campaign, UK advertising regulators have a clear conflict of interest.

"Non-broadcast food marketing is currently subject only to voluntary codes owned, developed and enforced by advertisers, such as the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP).  Because the funding for the Code's development and enforcement comes from the industry it is meant to regulate, the Code never strays far from industry's interests.”

Is there enough of a disincentive to prevent repeated breaches of advertising codes?

A recent report published​ by the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFCG) found that major food and drink companies were repeat offenders for beaching the code and directly marketing to children (see graphics below). Clare Hughes, nutrition program manager at Australia’s Cancer Council says the lack of punitive measures are to blame.

"There's a lack of enforcement action and certainly no sanctions and penalties for breaching the code."

AD 2013

"[Mars] is a repeat offender, advertising multiple unhealthy products to children, multiple times. If the penalty is just a rap over the knuckles, there's no incentive for it to change its marketing practices."

Worst offenders for code breaches in Australia 2012 - 2014:
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Source: Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative, Fairfax Media

But the AFCG says that overall compliance with the code is 99.7%.

Meanwhile in the UK, the Law Commission wrote in a report​ that the potential damage to a company's reputation was dissuasive enough. “The ASA’s rulings are published weekly and this tool for ‘naming and shaming’ traders is considered a crucial sanction.”

CORRECTION: This article has been amended to make it clear that FoodNavigator did not interview Stephan Loerke but simply cited comments from an article he published on Euractiv.

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1 comment

Poor journalism

Posted by Will Gilroy,

The journalist, Michael Niamh, never spoke to the World Federation of Advertisers as part of this piece (despite numerous offers on my part to speak to him) and uses as its basis another article from Euractiv which expresses a very different POV from the one represented in this article: see here

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