Marketing to Kids

Here at Diabetes Flashpoints, we’ve periodically covered the political battles surrounding school-lunch nutrition standards. Yet while improving the food, snacks, and beverages sold in schools may represent an important step forward in tackling the childhood-obesity crisis in this country, schools are hardly the only place where kids might be tempted by unhealthy, irresistible treats. Simply watching TV or glancing at a print ad can trigger product desires in children, just as in adults.

Policymakers in the United States and around the world have long recognized the impact that product advertisements can have on children’s health, often leading to pressure being placed on companies to change their marketing techniques (a famous example is tobacco company R.J. Reynolds scrapping its Joe Camel character in 1997, under heavy pressure from doctors and health authorities who charged that the cartoon camel appealed to children). When it comes to child-targeted advertisements, food companies have already adapted many of their practices in the face of changing public opinion. Notably, the International Food and Beverage Alliance — an industry group whose members include giant companies like the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, McDonald’s, Nestlé, and Unilever — has had a global marketing policy in place since 2009 that restricts TV, print, school, and Internet advertising aimed at children under 12 to “better-for-you” products.

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As noted in an article published last week at FoodBev.com, the International Food and Beverage Alliance has now expanded the reach of its marketing policy after coming under pressure from the World Health Organization (WHO), which has noted an alarming rise in childhood obesity around the world. According to the article, the new advertising policy will cover nearly all forms of media, including radio, movies, mobile phones, games, and product placement. It also stipulates that marketing techniques such as licensed characters, movie tie-ins, and using celebrities who appeal to children will only be used to advertise “better-for-you” foods and beverages. What constitutes a “better-for-you” food is now defined by each individual company, since there is no worldwide standard, or U.S. standard, for what this should mean in the context of advertising to kids. The new advertising policy states that member companies will work together to ensure that criteria for “better-for-you” products are similar from company to company. The policy will go into effect by the end of 2016.

What do you make of this food industry announcement — is it a step in the right direction that should be applauded, or a minimal gesture that should be eyed with suspicion? Should nutrition standards for products advertised to children be set by law, rather than written by the companies that follow them? Is 12 too young of a cutoff age for what is considered marketing to children? Leave a comment below!