Junk Food Marketing – a Crisis in the Marketplace

Junk Food Marketing – a Crisis in the Marketplace

Junk food marketing (JFM) employs the use of tactful, strategic and appealing marketing techniques, often tailored to the preferences or demands of different ages or population groups, to advertise a vast range of foods which are often of low nutritional value. Not forgetting the sheer amount of money invested by industry in devising, designing and implementing these marketing strategies, a staggering $971m spent by McDonalds on advertising alone in 2012 in the US. Additionally, a recent article in The Guardian claims billions of dollars worldwide is being subsidised to junk food companies, with agricultural policies favouring the mass production of unhealthy food products and ingredients. When compared to the ever-shrinking budgets of public health, it is clear to see which messages and food products dominate in society.

Research shows that consumption of energy-dense foods high in fat or sugar often increases in response to viewing a junk food advertisement, with the greatest consumption seen in obese children. Whatsmore, JFM is linked to increased brand recognition and fosters positive attitudes towards unhealthy foods in children, due to the use of bright colours, cartoon characters and popular celebrity figures to attract attention.

Since the UK is said to have the largest level of JFM aimed at children, it seems obvious to target this area as a means of addressing childhood obesity. On the contrary and much to the disappointment of the public health community, JFM and price promotions in supermarkets were left out of the long-awaited Childhood Obesity Plan released in August by the government. Consequently, JFM can continue to expand through the growing number of channels of advertising, such as social media and gaming, as the expense of the next generation’s health and wellbeing.

As the festive period approaches, the Coca-Cola truck will begin to reappear as it does year after year, with many declaring this as the ‘start of Christmas’ or ‘#holidaysarecoming’. How is, what is essentially an energy-dense, nutrient poor sugary drink linked to weight gain, obesity, dental cavities, depression and other morbities, signalled as the start of Christmas? A period which represents peace and good will? Coca-Colas heavy presence on TV, radio, social media and in many supermarkets during this period is to blame for this association which is shared by so many.

In an attempt to shelter children from these harmful and aggressive marketing strategies, Food Active have written a letter to object to the Coca-Cola “Happy Holidays” truck visiting the North West this year. As a region we suffer increasing levels of overweight and obesity and some of the worst child dental health in the country. If you agree that local authorities should do more to prevent such obvious and blatant advertising use the hashtag #cavitiesarecoming to show your support and keep up to date with the latest news on the Food Active website.

Whilst JFM through TV is regulated to an extent, with Ofcom prohibiting unhealthy foods to be advertised during children’s programmes, there is still a much work to be done. Children are still exposed to JFM during family programmes, such as X-Factor, predominantly during evenings and weekends after 4:40pm, and non-broadcasting channels such as social media and gaming are not regulated. Therefore, industry takes advantage of this gap and infiltrates their advertising campaigns into the lives of children, collecting data such as age, sex and preferences for tailor-made advertising. Web based targeting, such as happymeal.com by McDonalds, attracts children as young as 2 to play their cleverly designed games and virtual worlds to reinforce their brand from an early age. JFM is also known to tap into ‘pester power’, whereby a child will see an junk food advertisement which they enjoy and engage with and continually ask their parents or guardians to purchase the item – whilst some will stay strong, others will succumb to the constant pestering.

Furthermore, WHO have raised concerns over the number of junk food advertisements seen in children’s games apps and vloggers funded by food companies to promote their foods, criticising governments for failing to keep up the pace with new advances in digital marketing.

The Rio Olympics this year has been described as a ‘carnival for junk food marketing’, having being primarily sponsored by unhealthy food companies including McDonalds, Coca Cola and Kellogg’s, despite representing the optimal health and wellbeing of thousands of athletes. Again using popular figures, gold medallists were often pictured promoting unhealthy food choices in and around the games, portraying the wrong image to children who may aspire to these athletes’ achievements. Unfortunately, London 2012 Olympics was no different.

In recent years, there has been a trend of personalising food products by Starbucks and Coca Cola of printing a name on containers. Cola Cola’s sales soared following the campaign, which aimed to create a more emotive and relatable product which they would then share with friends and family, encouraging consumers to use the #shareacoke via twitter, spreading the message even further.

As can be seen, the food and beverage industry have devised several marketing and advertising techniques which tap into our age, gender, preferences and emotions in an attempt to boost sales and profits. It is paramount that we provide a healthier food environment for the adults of the future, a future which involves stricter and tighter regulation of JFM through all channels to protect children from these sneaky and detrimental marketing ploys.

Further reading:

Gibney, M.J et al. (2013). Public Health Nutrition. London: Wiley-Blackwell Pub.

British Heart Foundation. (2016). Junk Food Marketing to Children [online]. Available at: https://www.bhf.org.uk/about-us/our-policies/preventing-heart-disease/junk-food-marketing-to-children [Accessed: 28th Nov 2016].

Story, M. and French, S. (2004). Food Advertising and Marketing Directed at Children and Adolescents in the US. International Journal of Behavioural Nutrition and Physical Activity. V.1 (3), pp.58-68.

Harris, J.L et al. (2009). A crisis in the marketplace: how food marketing contributes to childhood obesity and what can be done. Annual Review of Public Health. V.30, pp.211-225.

Boyland, E et al. (2016). Advertising as a cue to consume: a systematic review and meta-analysis of the acute exposure to unhealthy food and non-alcoholic beverage advertising on intake in children and adults. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. V.11 (5), pp.39-45.

Cohen, M. (2016). The obesity epidemic is an economic issue [online]. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/business/economics-blog/2016/nov/24/obesity-epidemic-economic-market-junk-food?CMP=share_btn_tw [Accessed: 28th Nov 2016].

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