Marketing unhealthy food to children
Aileen McGloin: Hello and welcome to the safefood Nutrition podcast. I’m Dr Aileen McGloin, Director of Marketing and Communications at safefood, the all Island agency, promoting food safety and healthy eating. On this podcast, we talk about nutrition. Issues like obesity, food poverty, sustainability, and health in the media. Today, we look at the marketing of unhealthy food to children, with emphasis on digital media. We’ll examine the evidence on the extent and impact of marketing of unhealthy food to children, as well as how, it’s currently being tackled in the UK and Republic of Ireland.
I’m delighted to be joined by Dr. Mimi Tatlow-Golden, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology and Childhood, at the Open University, where she also co-chairs the centre for children and young people’s well-being. One of Mimi’s key research areas is digital food marketing and rights. She works extensively with NGOs on these issues, including the WHO and UNICEF globally, as well as the Irish Heart Foundation. I’m also joined by head of advocacy at the Irish Heart Foundation, Mr. Chris Macey. The Irish Heart Foundation has played a strong advocacy role on this topic of marketing of food to children in recent years. Their ‘Stop Targeting Kids’ campaign supports parents and enlists public support for stricter controls at government level. Welcome everybody.
Mimi, I’m going to start with you if you don’t mind. What evidence do we have of the extent and impact, of the marketing of unhealthy foods to children?
Mimi Tatlow-Golden: So, you know, we’ve got decades of evidence at this point, really strong evidence, from decades of research studies, starting in the 1970s, consistently coming through to now. Lots of meta analyses, so where people pull the results of different studies and look to see, are all the findings trending in one way, and if you group the findings together, are they still showing the same thing? And consistently, what the evidence shows and WHO, the World Health Organization and even the World Health Assembly has voted on this. It’s quite straightforward. Food marketing changes what children want and do. So it changes their attitudes to foods, it changes what they want to eat, their preferences, it changes what they ask their parents to buy, it influences what they buy themselves as they get pocket money, and it influences what they eat. And it spans all kinds of studies, experiments studies of the, looking at the stories that ads tell and the characters they use, what appeals to children, and brought together, the evidence is so strong that over a decade ago, so in 2010, the WHO said, the evidence is already really strong, we need to ask all states to pull back on advertising these foods to children.
Aileen McGloin: And Mimi can we draw a direct link then between, childhood obesity and the advertising of unhealthy food to children?
Mimi Tatlow-Golden: So, it’s a good question, because it depends what you mean by a direct link. So can you construct a study, in which you give half the children a world in which they have no exposure to food marketing, and the other half lots of exposure to food marketing and see whether some become obese and others don’t. You can’t do that, that’s completely unethical, and we can’t create such a world anyway, right? But what we can do is understand that the behaviours that flow from exposure to marketing, and that are consistently demonstrated, show consistently that children eat more. And not only do they eat more after viewing ads immediately or in general in their lives, but they don’t compensate for that eating later on in the day, so they don’t sort of have an extra snack, and then eat less at dinner, they just eat a little bit more.
And one really interesting study in Australia that came out a couple of years ago, did a study in a children’s camp. So they had the children in a really naturalistic setting, sort of doing what they were doing anyway, and here they were able to come closer than anyone else has come, to a controlled study where half of the kids watch TV, and had exposure to some digital marketing, that included food and the other half didn’t. And the kids who saw, who were in the food exposure group, daily ate about 40-ish calories extra. And if you think about it, that is enough, if that adds up over days, weeks, months and years, that’s enough to tip you, into overweight and ultimately obesity over time. So, we can draw a link between marketing of unhealthy food to children, and obesity. But the important thing to bear in mind is that we can’t say that marketing is the one and only thing, that causes children to, you know, become overweight or to experience obesity, because in the end, what we’re living in is a system, in which children are completely surrounded by cues, to consume, to like, to want, to ask for, to eat unhealthy foods more than healthy foods. And it’s that entire system, in which marketing is a big part, that we have to tackle.
Aileen McGloin: Chris, if I could come to you, bring you in at this point, do you think the public is aware of the kind of impact that Mimi has described, of marketing of food to children?
Chris Macey: I think there’s certainly some awareness of the impact, and that’s highlighted, for example, in the fact that, I think it’s 71% of people support an outright ban on junk food marketing to children and a poll that was carried out for the Irish Heart Foundation, and even higher numbers support the ban on things like celebrity endorsements, junk ads in games apps for children, that sort of thing. On those figures, you could say that the public is well ahead of policy makers on the issue. Now, having said that, I don’t think people are fully aware of children’s exposure to junk food advertising, and therefore, I suppose to its impact. I think most people are shocked when you tell them for example, about Mimi’s research showing four and five-year-old kids, still seeing a thousand junk food ads on television a year, despite restrictions to broadcast advertising. They’re also shocked by other findings, research findings on impact, you know, one that caused a few ripples not so long ago was UK research showing that, you know, just seeing one extra junk food ad a week on TV would add around 18,000 extra calories to a child’s annual diet, which we were told is the equivalent of 60 cheeseburgers and would add five pounds to a child’s weight.
So that’s pretty significant, but that’s just television, you know, because digital marketing is more personalized, it’s therefore more effective, and then more damaging than the sort of the blunt instrument of TV ads where the same message goes to you whether you’re 8 or 80, and whether you’re interested in pizza or fine dining. So I think people have started to understand, what marketers are capable of since the Cambridge Analytics affair and, all those firms like psychographic micro-targeting, came to the fore, but, you know, I don’t think most people, or the politicians quite grasp the power that online marketers have over children.
Aileen McGloin: Do you think that parents are any more aware than other segments of society?
Chris Macey: We have a parent’s group who help campaign with us, and put in complaints to regulators and that sort of thing, they’re certainly very aware. You know, as a parent myself, I think if I wasn’t working for the Irish heart foundation, I wouldn’t know what my children are doing, I don’t know what my children are doing, on their smart phones, for example, so I don’t think I’d have much idea of what’s happening. So, I think generally no, and again Mimi did some research for us some years ago, that showed parents were quite blasé initially about the impact that online advertising would be having on their children. When they were shown the tactics, I think then parents tended to get a little bit angry about it alright and, you know, I think there was an informative process just on that piece of research that showed that.
Aileen McGloin: And we’re going to come back again to you, Mimi, just to ask you how do young people and children respond to the ads themselves, when they see them online?
Mimi Tatlow-Golden: Oh, yes, good question. And before I get into that, I am going to say, just to add to what Chris was saying there that the research with the parents in Ireland, which I did across the country, and it was really interesting to go through the process with them of starting off asking them, you know, is food advertising in social media a thing that you think about in terms of your teens, these were parents of 13 year olds and they were saying, oh no, not really, and you know, some of them were saying, well there are other things I’m worried about. And, and some of them were saying, well they’re sensible, you know, they know how to make their own decisions now. And in general, there was a sense of it, it’s just not on my radar and also, you know, a certain really understandable sense of, I’ve got enough to be worrying about. So, what I did then was show them examples of the food advertising as Chris was saying, you know, linked to those celebrities that they love, the YouTubers that they follow and all of that.
And do you know, by the end of it, this group of parents was so angry, feeling that how could their children possibly be expected to resist this stuff? Because it was so brilliantly made, and so engaging and funny, and one of them said, you know, that ad was the most annoying thing I’ve ever seen but I know my teen would love it. So, I think there’s something we need to bear in mind that there’s a whole world that our young people are engaging with, that we may not see in our daily lives in a way that you’d walk past the television, and see what was on, and have that on your radar. So, in general what parents say, I find is wherever you’ve talked to them, so whether here or in other countries, it follows the same pattern with at first say, no, they know what, you know, they’re teens now, they can make decent decisions. And in fact, what we find is that the young people themselves also will say, it doesn’t really affect me, and this attitude from parents and children reflects a sort of general bias that everybody has, which is that, I’m in control of what I think and do, particularly in response to advertising. And you’ll find the interesting thing of where both, well particularly parents say, oh young people, no they’re not affected by social media, but they are affected by their friends. And that does obviously beg the question of, you know, where are the friends getting the ideas from? So, in terms of how young people are actually affected, as I say, they feel that they’re not affected, but our research with them.
So, we did a study across Dublin and Ennis, with UCD, and we looked at how do children, what do they pay attention to? And we followed, so we did eye tracking studies. We looked at, what do they say that they like, in terms of in social media profiles, we looked at what too would they share? So, what would they send out to their social media ecosystems? And also, then what do they remember in terms of the brands that they saw? And this study showed them whole profiles that we constructed that contained ads for unhealthy foods, healthier foods, and non-food items that, you know, young people would love just the usual consumer goods that they really enjoy. And consistently what we found, was that they looked at ads for unhealthy foods compared to healthy foods, or non-food, they looked at them longer. They said they were more likely to say they like the look of this person who had these ads in their profile, they were more likely to share it, and they were more likely to remember the brands that they viewed, if they were unhealthy brands than anything else.
So sometimes when I tell people about this study, they say, well, you know what? It probably means that they just see lots of advertising all around them for unhealthy foods. And obviously, again, back to the ecosystem idea, right? But the crucial thing to bear in mind, is that even though they were compared to items, really big ticket items that they are very attracted to that feature celebrities they love, whether it’s sports or clothes or, you know, brands that they really love. They were still remembering the unhealthy foods more. And so it says something about the whole living environment, that we have allowed to be created for our young people to grow up in, and leaves me asking the hard question of, you know, how have we done this, and why are we still letting it happen?
Aileen McGloin: Are there assumptions that regulators are making, for example, about how young people are responding that are preventing further action?
Mimi Tatlow-Golden: Well, you know, that phrase make healthy choices, which I think we all come out with it. And I’m sure safefood has been known, to advise that people make healthy choices, and, don’t we say it to our kids all the time. And there’s an assumption particularly once they reach their teens, that young people have agency, which they do, and should be developing it, which they should. But, what this attitude completely underestimates is the imbalance in what’s influencing children. So, if I’m going to give my kids a plate of a range of junk foods and one healthy food every day for a year, and I’m going to expect them to develop a healthy eating habit, then I think I would be deluded. And that’s what we’re doing, in terms of the advertised diet, that children see. So, all the cues that they get for their behaviour, for their attitudes, for their preferences, for their choices, are pushing them towards that tantalizing pile of treats. And we actually want them to develop taste buds that enjoy the flavour of good healthy food, while we’re serving them up endless exposure, to unhealthy food, prompts and cues. So, I think that both parents, and regulators, and young people, don’t quite appreciate the extent to which advertising creates a world in which they live.
Aileen McGloin: Can I just come back to something you said earlier about, you know, parental awareness of TV versus what’s on social media. Is there a difference in the way, that young people respond to, let’s say an ad on TV versus an ad on social media, for example?
Mimi Tatlow-Golden: That’s a really good question, and, is the thing that people always say when the answer is hard to come by, isn’t it? We don’t have, direct research comparing one against the other. What we do have is enough evidence to let us know that there are ways and means by which people are advertising in social media, in which I include YouTube, that sparks young people’s developing needs as it were. So there needs for social relationships, for role models, for identity development and all of those things. So, I mean, it’s really interesting, lovely qualitative research coming out of places like Norway and the UK is telling us, that young people believe that YouTubers who are featuring foods in the stuff that they create, are doing it for a good reason, and that it’s genuine and free of influence. And in the UK pre-teens feel a particular sort of positive attitudes to the YouTubers who they like, and the people they follow. And we know this also from research elsewhere, on say, music celebrities and teens feel that it’s like, here is a person who I’m in a relationship with, and I know what they love and they want, and I want to reward them for what they do, so I will buy the things that they surround themselves with including, you know, where this happens, the food.
Aileen McGloin: And Chris, if I could come back to you and talk maybe on that more legislative and policy level, can we learn anything from how other countries have tackled marketing to children?
Chris Macey: I suppose, given that it’s more than 40 years since the first restrictions were introduced, in Quebec to under thirteens, it’s surprising really, there’s not more good examples. Mimi said it earlier, we’ve known for years and years, that junk food marketing to children is rampant, it’s fuelling obesity and that’s damaging children’s health, but unfortunately, the evidence and the political will have not matched up very often. Now, I suppose, Chile, is one example, it’s possibly the best example of a country that’s really seriously trying to tackle its childhood obesity problem. It brought in junk food marketing regulations on TV, radio, website and magazines, I think it was back in 2016, and I saw some research on that, that showed, this was to under 14s only now, has to be said, but I think it achieved about a 58% reduction and exposure to that age group. So, in data and in other areas, Chile’s excelling probably at the moment. However, I mean, if the UK can stick with its current plan and get it through all the lobbying that’s going to come against it, you know, the really big forces that are going to be ranged against it and, you know, if it brings in its 9:00 pm broadcast watershed, it’s potential at least, a blanket ban on all digital marketing.
And then, you know, those restrictions that we’ve read in the papers about on price promotions such as buy and get one free, mental health check in place and that sort of thing. That’s going to be very significant. I mean, you know, a times we’ve been good here, or we’ve looked like we were going to be in 2005, plan we had was well before its time, in 2013, when the broadcast regulations came in, they were ahead of their time, now, they’ve been superseded by clever industry, exploitation of loopholes and that sort of thing that leads to so many young children seeing so much. I think we did some research that showed I think, the last two weeks of the world cup, in 2018, in 16 matches, you could see 1400 ads between, you know, what was there at the stadium, what was on the TV, you know, in terms of advertising, as far as we’re concerned in this country, we’ve fallen very far short in terms of digital.
The lesson, if we want to learn a lesson, we can learn it from ourselves as well as from anywhere else, but we can learn it from around the world, in any industry, from gambling, to mining, to anything you could think of is that, you know, voluntary codes, they just don’t work where compliance would reduce income and profitability, of the companies within the industry. They just don’t work, in fairness to junk food manufacturers, you know, public health isn’t their remit, their remit is to maximize shareholder wealth and, you know, that’s what their executives are judged on, but that just shows us we’ve got to, it’s governments that have to step up and make the decisions there. And if there’s a lesson to be learned, look around the world, look at anything and you’ll see that, and that’s the one lesson I’d ask our Taoiseach’s office, or, you know, our department of health to take on board. It’s just, we’ve got to develop the regulation, without vested interests being involved.
Aileen McGloin: Mimi could I ask you a similar question if you had one thing that you could do in government, what would that, I suppose first step be?
Mimi Tatlow-Golden: Deep breath. Long pause. One thing? Okay, I’m going to cheat a little bit here, because my one thing would be to create, an advertised diet for children. And this spans every scenario in which they are exposed to marketing. It would be to create an advertised diet for children, that means that they will be exposed to ideas about food rather than junk food. What do I mean by that? I mean, that means tackling everything though. That means tackling the beyond field marketing, that Chris was talking about that we saw in the world cup, as well as the ads on TV. It means tackling the activation market, the YouTubers, the brands that create content and entertainment. It means tackling digital marketing via social media. It means tackling packaging, in Chile, I’m so delighted Chris mentioned Chile. I mean the change in packaging in Chile has been remarkable. We’ve taken all the cartoon characters whether they’re licensed or whether they’re brand own characters, they’ve taken them off. And it’s amazing how different a package looks, and how much like less for children, it looks once the cartoon character has gone, you know, and for those of us who’ve grown up with those. It’s quite shocking to see, it means taking away the marketing around schools, on buses at bus stops. So, you know, and if you think that you want children to grow up in a world that says, "here’s healthy, enjoy it." Right? Not make healthy choices while I’m pushing you the unhealthy stuff, that is my single policy ask.
Chris Macey: Can I give you mine? That was a lesson, I’ve a policy ask, if I can have it?
Aileen McGloin: Absolutely.
Chris Macey: You know, as Mimi says this is really complex and from all credible research we’ve ever seen, you know, it’s only a systemic and sustained portfolio of initiatives that delivered at really big scale that can tackle this, but, you know, if there’s one thing that can lead to that, if there’s one thing that can create that sustained action - it’s political consensus and political will, you know, if we could have cross-party consensus, that this is a really serious issue, it’s a really serious health issue, I mean the safefood research says, the government commissioned it so it should know what it says, it says that 85,000 children living on this Island state will die prematurely due to overweight and obesity. You know, we know there’s children aged eight and nine, now in quite high numbers presenting with high blood pressure, and teenagers with cardiovascular age in their sixties. We need a recognition that this is about a big problem, and the children will be put first in it. That it’s not a matter of industry, it’s not a matter of job creation, it’s not a matter of wealth creation, it’s a matter of children’s health. Put that first and lots of things will flow from that.
You know, we say there’s three prerequisites to dealing with obesity. You know, there’s that political will, there’s removal of vested interests from the decision-making process and then, the end of marketing of junk food to children, we say under eighteens, but you could pick any age, really. If you can do that, so much will flow out of it. But I mean, at the moment, what we have, is really a political system that protects, you know, industry from consumers, in this area rather than protects consumers and particularly children from industry. And, you know, they have no protection at all. I mean, Mimi has talked about the extent of the digital marketing issue, and children here have no protection, and haven’t had ever, any protection from this, there’s a code run by the industries on self-regulatory body that is, we would say, you know, it’s little more than a joke. It’s not designed to protect children, it’s again, it’s designed to protect industry, it always leads back to that. So, as I say, if we had political consensus and we do I think we do, it’s just how much priority is placed on it, and how resistant politicians are to lobbying from industry. But if we have that children first approach and consensus approach, we can achieve anything, really.
Aileen McGloin: Thank you Chris for bringing this back to the central issue, which is the protection of children. So, I’m going to just ask you both one last question which is, how do we hear the voice of the child in all of this? We’ve talked about the regulators, we’ve talked about parents, we’ve talked about advertisers, but where in the mix is, how do children feel in all of this?
Mimi Tatlow-Golden: So to answer that question, it’s a really interesting one, because I’ve spoken, you know, I’ve worked with young people and children on this, and there’s a piece of work for us all to do as a community, because advertisers have had the head start. At this point what we have is children who experienced a childhood that they learn their brands before they know their ABCs, right? And their minds have been shaped by that. And so, by the time they get to their teens, those brands have become intimate friends, ways to express love, ways to enjoy friendship, ways to be oppositional to parent advice that says make healthy choices. So we need to work with young people, to listen to them, and to understand what do the brands mean for them, before we can start unpicking what effect it’s having on them and working with them to look at what that influence is. If you just go up to kids and ask them, do you think we should ban your favourite brands? That’s a really naive way to go about it, and it doesn’t work as I’m sure Chris will tell you.
Aileen McGloin: Chris, did you want to jump in there?
Chris Macey: Yeah, I mean, I absolutely agree with Mimi, you know, children are crucial to progress in this area and we’ve got a youth advisory panel who we talked to a lot about this surveying and it’s really clear, you know, we asked them what they thought about this, and they thought their favourite brands were great, and we weren’t going to be telling them what to think about it. Certainly, you know, when you start going underneath that and looking at the more fundamental issues around it, when we start showing young people examples of the efforts that are being made to manipulate them and how cynical it is, that it makes them angry. It sort of mobilizes them a bit, you know, some more than others has to be said, but it certainly angers. Or has angered the young people that we’ve spoken to, you know, things like you know, how brands get onto their newsfeeds and how they interact with them, as if they’re their real friends, when obviously these are, these are marketers earning money and they couldn’t give a damn about children, the children they’re talking to or the children there, or what happens to them.
And we found that the children’s voice in media, it gives us sort of much more authentic sort of feel to, you know, to the issue. You know, these are brands that are impacting on young people’s health, and its young people saying, hey we want this to stop. you know, we’re being targeted here, we’re being, our health is being damaged here, and that’s going to have long-term consequences, if not for, you know, the individuals who are out there talking about what if you’re exercised about it, you probably won’t be but, you know, their peers and it is intensely annoying. you know, certainly it’s the young people in our groups.
We got great advice just on how to approach things, how tactically to approach things, and as well as advice, particularly on areas, you know, around say food in schools, you know, where it’s often easier to buy a can of coke than to get a free glass of drinking water from an old fashioned tap, you know, where children have helped us remove vending machines from their schools, how they’ve shown us really there’s a school environment here where they have adults talking to them in the class about what the food pyramid looks like, and then walk out to the class and the food system in the school just throws, rubbish at them, you know, through tuck shops and snackeries, and, you know, selling cookies and muffins and sausage rolls, where you have by small break, you’ve potentially had your recommended daily calories consumed. Learning from young people in terms of the actual, you know, their lived experience, learning further from them and what they think, and how we can have a sort of a partnership with young people, where we have the same goal of saying, right there’s a huge issue here for a whole generation of children that are being treated like corporate fodder, a little bit like a hundred years ago, that young people were cannon fodder, and they’re like corporate fodder now, you know, that annoys people and stuff makes people want to act. If we can work with them, give them some benefit of our own bit of experience and get their experience, then I think the two working together is much more effective than just us trying or certainly trying to do it on their own.
Aileen McGloin: Thank you, Chris, and on that very positive note, and I think we will leave it there. I’d like to thank you both for your incredible contribution, it’s been a privilege to have this conversation with you, thanks for your knowledge, for your expertise and your insight. And if anyone wants to learn any more about key public health issues from our podcasts, you can listen to those wherever you get your podcasts.
You can also get in touch on email@example.com by email, or you can follow the conversation on Twitter, @safefoodnetwork or indeed on LinkedIn. So, until the next podcast take care, and bye-bye.