The experts found that children are “consistently … exposed to countless numbers of hidden digital marketing techniques promoting foods high in fat, sugar and salt [HFSS]” because of “markedly insufficient” laws on non-broadcast advertising. “…current restrictions are narrowly defined, patchy and often take a platform-specific approach,” they added.
These failures also undermine action taken in other areas to tackle rising levels of childhood obesity. The “continuing lack of effective regulation of digital marketing threatens the efforts of policy-makers to halt the growing childhood obesity epidemic”, they said.
The use of sophisticated techniques, in which brands use data gathered from online activity to target specific audiences, is a particular concern. “The targeted or personalised nature of digital marketing, with its capacity to identify the children who are the most vulnerable to marketing messages at their most vulnerable moments, makes it potentially a far more powerful influence on children’s preferences and dietary behaviour.”
To regulate or not to regulate is a key question facing governments across Europe as they look at ways to tackle obesity.
WHO wants to see a balance struck, in which “the clear benefits of participating in online activities are underpinned by strong protection against harm to health, intrusion on privacy and economic exploitation”.
The report makes a number of recommendations, with member states urged to extend laws they have in relation to marketing HFSS products in broadcast media to encompass non-broadcast. They should also clearly define the age range to which protection applies and the types of marketing covered.
Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO’s regional director in Europe, called on governments to “act swiftly”.
In defence of digital
A spokesman for the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) challenged the new report’s conclusions. “Contrary to what is stated by WHO in their release, statutory regulation and industry-wide self-regulatory provisions prohibit companies from targeting children on the basis of their online behaviours,” he said.
A new set of global commitments for food marketing will come into force at the end of this year, covering all forms of digital marketing. Companies will be able to choose whether to scrap all advertising of their products to children under the age of 12, or to only market products that meet “common nutrition criteria” based on dietary guidance.
The new voluntary policy will also span firms signed up to the EU Pledge, an industry-led commitment made by the likes of Unilever, Mars, Nestlé and Mondelēz in 2007 to “change the way they advertise to children”.
Last week, secretariat for the EU Pledge, Rocco Renaldi, told FoodNavigator that the average child under 12 today sees 88% fewer ads that don’t meet the nutrition criteria compared to 2005. Campaigners have long criticised the criteria, however.
Last week, consumer group BEUC launched a new campaign in a bid to put online advertising of HFSS products in the spotlight. Ilaria Passarani, head of food and health at consumer group BEUC, said WHO Europe’s report is a timely reminder that “online advertising is increasing as much as children’s waistlines”. If industry commitments fail to curb exposure, “the only way forward will be strict regulation”, she added.