Does industry self-regulation improve unhealthy food marketing to kids?

Food and beverage corporations, governments, and public health advocates have their differences when it comes to food and nutrition policy. But if there is one major point of agreement, it’s that young children should not be subjected to coercive marketing tactics promoting unhealthy food and drinks.

But, marketing departments are busier than ever, drumming up new and innovate ways to reach consumers. Gone are the days when major marketing channels consisted of radio, TV, and print media. Enter the world of smartphones, apps, social media, and a hyper-connected culture where the age at which kids own a cellphone is getting younger and younger. There are now more ways than ever before to influence consumers, and cultivate brand loyalty.


And major food and beverage companies are taking advantage. As I wrote in this previous post, digital food marketing via social media has exploded.

At the same time, these same companies pledged to curtail child-targeted advertising of unhealthy products. Under the Children’s Food & Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), major food and beverage companies (below is the full list) voluntarily committed to “shift the foods in advertising primarily directed to children under age 12 to healthier ones.”

CFBAI participantsThis shift includes marketing via “TV, print, radio, internet, interactive games (including advergames), tablets, smartphones, video games, computer games, DVDs and word-of-mouth.”

Now, this all sounds quite admirable. Wow, it seems major food and beverage companies – the same companies who make products that are contributing to a global spread of chronic disease and obesity – want to be part of the solution. And this is what top industry executives say.

But when it comes to evaluating if these voluntary, self-regulatory approaches actually make a difference, the evidence doesn’t seem to paint a favorable picture for industry.

A study published the other week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found a “lack of significant improvement in the nutritional quality of food marketed to children.” Researchers compared food advertising in children’s programs on broadcast and cable TV, including on ABC, CBS, Fox, NBC, CW, Cartoon Network, and Nickelodeon, between 2007 (before the CFBAI pledges) and 2013.

Using a 3-point grading scale called the Go/Slow/Whoa food rating framework, the percent of food ads categorized under Whoa (i.e. nutritionally deficient foods that should be avoided in a regular diet)  increased between 2007 and 2013 from 79.4% to 80.5%. Basically, no change. A similar trend was found with foods in the Slow category. Food ads for Go foods decreased by 3.1 percentage points from 4.2% to 1.1%.

nutritional quality of food adsThen the researchers narrowed things down to only look at companies who participate in CFBAI to voluntarily change the types of products they market to children. They found similar results: no change in the Whoa and Slow categories, and a decline in the Go category, which couldn’t be assessed for statistical significance because of the small sample size.

nutritional quality for pledge companiesSo, this all begs the question: when it comes to unhealthy food marketing practices, are voluntary, self-regulatory approaches sufficient? Based on the data from this study, even with 4 years to implement its pledges (CFBAI was established in 2009), companies participating in CFBAI haven’t changed a whole lot with marketing unhealthy products to children under 12 years old.

As we move forward and continue to test solutions to address our nation’s (and globe’s) epidemic of chronic disease and obesity, we should think carefully about the policy levers at our disposal. Voluntary approaches sound well-intentioned, they make for good PR, but passing the “do they actually work” test is another, more important, question.


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