WHO Report Recommends “Urgent Action” to Curtail Digital Food Marketing to Children
The World Health Organization (WHO) has issued a November 4, 2016, report titled “Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives,” which urges policymakers “to reduce children’s exposure to all forms of marketing for foods high in fats, salt and sugars [HFSS], including via digital media.” In particular, the report claims digital marketing campaigns take advantage of regulatory loopholes to amplify the traditional media advertising of HFSS foods, “achieving greater ad attention and recall, greater brand awareness and more positive brand attitudes, greater intent to purchase and higher product sales.”
The report calls attention to the privacy issues that purportedly surround the digital marketing of foods to children, including the collection and use of geo-location and personal data. It also warns that “some food chains partner with gaming companies in order to, for example, make the chain’s restaurants important game locations,” while other advertisers reportedly rely on advergames, social media, or “powerful peer influencers such as video bloggers” to “engage children in emotional, entertaining experiences and encourage them to share these experiences with their friends—a dubious cocktail when used to promote unhealthy foods.”
Outlining the key components of policies designed to curb digital food marketing to children, the report asks European Union member states to acknowledge their duty “to protect children online with statutory regulation,” as well as extend offline protections to online media. To this end, WHO calls on policymakers to define what constitutes marketing directed to children, “compel private Internet platforms to remove marketing of foods high in saturated fat, salt and/or free sugars,” and develop appropriate penalties. It also recommends that stakeholders (i) “strengthen corporate social responsibility” initiatives to protect children’s rights online; (ii) “address the ethics of conducting digital research with data from children”; (iii) “audit algorithms and supervise data mining practices”; and (iv) “disclose marketing spending, activities and reach and children’s engagement.” See WHO Press Release, November 4, 2016.