There is no longer question about whether food marketing is hurting youth. The IOM (2006)
report on children’s food marketing sums up available knowledge in two words: “marketing works.” This is understatement. Youth marketing is powerfully effective, occurs in massive amounts, and is done in forms that thwart cognitive defenses and subvert parents’ ability to monitor what their children see and ultimately their ability to provide their children a healthy food environment.
Public support for limits on television advertising that targets young children is growing. Both the American Psychological Association (Kunkel et al., 2004
) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (Shifrin, 2005
) recommend a ban on television advertising to children under age 7 or 8. In a nationally representative poll of adults in the U.S., 79% agreed that “there should be limits placed on advertising for children” (The Center for a New American Dream, 2004
). Even businesspeople in the youth marketing industry agree that it is inappropriate to market to children under age 7 (Geraci, 2004
). Both Quebec and Sweden currently ban any form of advertising targeted to children under age 12 or 13. These types of global restrictions on advertising to children are driven by ethical considerations, primarily the widely-held belief that children are more vulnerable to marketing influence and subject to exploitation, and not by the evidence base of marketing effects (Hawkes, 2007
The rise in childhood obesity has raised further concerns that food marketing contributes to unhealthy food preferences and eating behaviors and increased calls for regulations to limit junk food marketing to youth (Hastings et al., 2005; IOM, 2006
). The World Health Organization (WHO) has identified the “commercial promotion of energy-dense, micronutrient-poor food and beverages to children” as a significant contributor to noncommunicable diseases (WHO, 2006
) and the World Health Assembly (WHA) comprised of all United Nations members, declared that the WHO should develop “recommendations on marketing of foods and nonalcoholic beverages to children” (WHA, 2007
). In preparation for this recommendation, an international working group of obesity experts developed the Sydney Principles to guide the food industry in implementing responsible practices to promote foods and beverages to children (see ) (Swinburn et al., 2008
). These recommendations were reviewed and supported by over 200 public health and marketing experts, including representatives of the food industry, and among other things, call for a “wide definition of commercial promotions”. Although the experts could not agree on the definition of “children,” over 70% believed that restrictions should include children up to age 16 years, and over half supported restrictions up to age 18.
There are signs of building world interest to specifically limit unhealthy food marketing to youth (Hawkes, 2007
). The U.K. has enacted the most comprehensive statutory regulation of food marketing. In 2008, the U.K. Office of Communications (OFCOM) strengthened existing regulations on television advertising for foods that do not meet government-defined nutrition standards to ban junk food marketing on all children’s television stations and all programs targeted to children under age 16 years. As of the end of 2006, at least 39 countries had imposed some form of statutory regulations or industry self-regulation to limit food marketing to children on television, and an additional 21 countries had regulations limiting food marketing in schools (Hawkes, 2007
). Only two countries, however, have limited product placements or sales promotions (Finland and Spain), and only one country limits Internet marketing (Brazil). Similarly, most regulations address food marketing to children under age 12 or 13 and presume that protections for adolescents are not required.
Hoping to prevent what we believe is inevitable government action that restricts youth marketing, the food and advertising industries have rushed to create self-regulatory programs (Sharma et al., 2009
). Although the Sydney Principles specifically recommend statutory regulations (Swinburn et al., 2008
), the preferred approach in most countries has been to cede regulatory authority to industry and hence to place explicit trust in industry self-regulations (Hawkes, 2007
; Sharma et al., 2009
). In the U.S., for example, the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) was established by industry to “promote responsible children’s advertising” (CARU, 2008
), but has been criticized for being slow, limited in authority, lax with standards, and so narrow in focus as to ignore the overwhelming majority of marketing messages (Hawkes, 2007
). As mentioned, the CBBB (2006)
, together with many of the largest food marketing companies in the U.S., pledged to “shift the mix of advertising messaging directed to children under 12 to encourage healthier dietary choices and healthy lifestyles”. This reliance on industry self-regulation also concerns public health experts who suggest that numerous omissions and loopholes in self-regulatory pledges may provide significantly more public relations benefit to the food industry than real health benefits to young people (Brownell & Warner, 2009
; Harris et al., 2009b
; Hawkes, 2007
; Parke, 2009; Sharma et al., 2009
Given the financial bonanza that is the youth market, the clear importance to industry to foster brand loyalty early in life, and the ease of convincing children to eat foods high in sugar, fat, and salt, there is every reason to distrust the motives of industry self-regulation and to learn from the hard lessons in areas such as alcohol and tobacco (Brownell & Warner, 2009
; Sharma et al., 2009
). Resources devoted by industry to marketing research, including work on neuromarketing, will always dwarf those of the public health community and will not be limited by the slow process that academic researchers contend with to secure grant funds and publish studies. Stated another way, it is the sad case that as researchers document the impact of one generation of marketing approaches, industry will have moved to the next. The greatest hope to counter this reality lies in documenting mechanisms common to all forms of marketing and aggressive policy actions to protect youth. This will happen as public opinion supports such actions. Therefore, it is important that the impact of marketing on youth be made clear to the general public, parents in particular, and that policy makers understand the actions they can take that will have greatest benefit. An informed, progressive, and well-funded research agenda will be necessary for both to occur.
presents a summary of policy proposals to limit food marketing that are currently under discussion and the important unanswered research questions. Potential policy approaches include the establishment of international guidelines; statutory regulations and self-regulation at the country level; restrictions on specific forms of marketing (e.g., product placements and the Internet); restrictions in school settings; and litigation against individual companies (see Harris et al., 2009b
). The key research questions to be answered in all of these potential actions include, a) who should be protected; b) what forms of marketing should be regulated; c) what settings should be regulated; and d) is it possible to protect young people against these influences, or should the practices be banned altogether.
Current policy initiatives and research questions that can be addressed by psychological research
The psychological science community can play a critical role in this debate. As presented throughout this paper, the lack of scientific support is not due to any evidence that food marketing does not have an effect. In fact, psychological theories predict that food marketing, in all its forms, has a profound negative impact on public health among young people and adults. Similarly, they predict that proposals by the food industry, such as increased marketing of “better for you” foods or portrayal of physical activity in food advertising, will not begin to counteract these effects, and could make them worse. Rather, a concerted research effort to demonstrate the applicability of newer psychological theories to food marketing stimuli and public health outcomes is required. If the adverse effects of advertising on young people’s health prove as significant and widespread as many child advocates, health professionals and psychologists suspect, then additional empirical evidence, accompanied by efforts to raise awareness among parents and policy makers, will provide much-needed support for public health efforts to significantly restrict food marketing to youth. The need for a new generation of psychological research is critical, and the opportunities to apply current psychological theories to address this important social issue are substantial.