WHO set new standards for monitoring junk food ads aimed at children

By Louis Gore-Langton

- Last updated on GMT

The WHO's guide to monitoring advertising has been met with applause and accusations of censorship ©iStock
The WHO's guide to monitoring advertising has been met with applause and accusations of censorship ©iStock

Related tags World health organisation Nutrition

The World Health Organisation has released guidelines for a new Europe-wide investigation into junk food ads aimed at children.

A new protocol​ will advise member states on how to collect data on food marketing to children, in view of stricter and more coordinated measures against junk foods. 

Designed by the World Health Organisation (WHO), the protocol marks the next step in action against advertising of foods high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS), by creating a unified research tool for governments and stakeholders to conduct in depth studies into exactly where and in what fashion HFSS foods are being marketed to children.

Implementing the protocol is now up to the member states themselves. 

“Most data on the prevalence of food and beverage marketing come from high-income, English-speaking countries. Continued monitoring is needed in these countries, to ensure that up-to-date evidence is available to inform and strengthen policy and that policies are adequately evaluated. More data are urgently needed from other countries, however, to support the domestic policy-making process and to build a more representative global picture of food-marketing activity” ​the report reads.

Needed enforcement or creeping censorship?

Kawther Hashem, researcher and nutritionist at Action on Sugar FoodNavigator the report is a much needed tool for combating all forms of HFFS adverts.

"All forms of advertising including media, digital platforms etc to children and adolescents should not be allowed for products high in fat, sugar or salt. There is no justification for banning the advertisements of tobacco when unhealthy food and drink are a much bigger cause of death and disability. We’re keen to see how the new guidelines will be enforced."

However, many have been opposed to measures which dictate public advertising, and some accuse policy makers of needless incursions on free expression.

Rob Lyons, science and technology director at the Institute of Ideas and author of ‘Panic on a plate: How society developed an eating disorder’, told us:

“Restrictions on advertising legal products are a kind of censorship. Moreover, they won’t even achieve their stated goal: reducing consumption. Parents decide what young children eat. When children get more independent, they have more opportunity to decide for themselves, usually on the spur of the moment, not because they saw an advert. The non-existent child obesity ‘epidemic’ is being used to justify a wide variety of restrictions on freedom, and the rather creepy details of marketing monitoring described here are a perfect illustration of that trend.”


The data collection methods advised by the report combine what the WHO says were the most effective aspects of previous studies.

For television, researchers are advised to monitor the five most popular channels watched by under 16s on four days of the week (including the entire weekend) and record the advertising or product placement from 6am to 10pm.

For internet, researchers are advised to purchase internet usage data from market research companies and assess the most popular websites – for which there is no limit. Looking at every page on each site and playing ad games is also recommended.

The data collected from these methods would then be coded according to a plethora of different categories regarding the duration and nature of each advert. Category examples were as varied as celebrity endorsements to cartoon characters and health claims.

All products advertised would then be analysed according to the WHO’s nutrient profile model​.

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