Marketing of unhealthy food to children – position of the New Zealand Heart Foundation

Around the world calls are being made to restrict marketing of unhealthy foods and drinks to children as one strategy towards creating a less obesogenic environment for our children to grow up in. It is an important strategy because food marketing can and does influence children’s eating habits – their food preferences, food requests, choices, and consumption1.

We know childhood is a time when food preferences and eating habits begin to develop. These preferences and habits influence both current and future health so, naturally, childhood is a key time to encourage healthy eating. However, advertising and marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children are undermining attempts to do so.

Exposure to advertising

Children are exposed to high volumes of advertising, both from television and other advertising media. New Zealand children watch on average almost two hours of television each day2 and would see 7,134 food advertisements over a year3. Increasingly, children are also exposed to marketing through non-traditional media. This includes not only branding, point-of-sale promotions and packaging, but product placement in movies or television shows, radio, in-store promotions, magazines, sports sponsorship, school promotions, print and billboard advertisements, branded clothing or toys, viral marketing, toy giveaways, mobile phones and apps, brand mascots, social media, websites, advergames, webisodes, and buzz marketing.

Research suggests there is a misalignment between what children need nutritionally and what is being promoted. In 2005, 70% of advertising on New Zealand television during children’s viewing time was for foods counter to good nutrition4. The Institute of Medicine in the United States determined that food and beverage marketing is out of balance with dietary guidelines and contributes to an environment that puts the health of children and youth at risk5.

Influence of advertising

Children are especially vulnerable to the influence of food advertising as they may not distinguish the commercial nature of advertising nor differentiate between advertisements and programmes6. Under 12 years of age, children cannot be expected to have the cognitive skills to be fully media literate. They deserve protection from undue influence from marketing of unhealthy food and drinks because in economists’ terms, they are not ‘rational consumers’ – they cannot be expected to critically assess information and weigh up future consequences of decisions.

Yet children are seen as an important target market as forming a bond with a product from an early age creates future customers7. In 2006, 44 food companies in the United States spent US$1.6 billion advertising their products to children8. We only need stand in a typical supermarket to see how powerful children’s demands can be. But children not only influence parents through ‘pester power’, they have spending power of their own. A survey of high-school students in Auckland, New Zealand found four out of five students spent money on food the previous day, with one in five spending more than $10 on food9.

Protecting children

There is strong public support for greater protection of our children. In a 2007 survey, over 80% of New Zealand parents and grandparents stated they would like advertising of unhealthy food to children stopped10. The Heart Foundation of New Zealand strongly supports this position and believes that as a country we must protect children from marketing of unhealthy food and drinks. Doing so has been assessed as a highly cost-effective intervention to help reduce childhood obesity11.

For fruit and vegetables, the influence of marketing presents opportunities that can be used to our advantage. Studies have shown that promotions such as use of cartoon characters on fruit can increase consumption. The argument about whether any advertising or marketing should be allowed to be directed at children is a worthwhile one. However, the current reality is we are far from regulating against advertising of unhealthy food to children, let alone all advertising. In that situation, using all available tools to increase consumption of fruit and vegetables by children is desirable.

  1. Cairns G, Angus K, Hastings G. The extent, nature and effects of food promotion to children: a review of the evidence to December 2008. Geneva: World Health Organization, 2009.
  2. AGB Nielsen. NZ on Air: children’s media forum: Available from: http://www.nzonair.govt.nz/media/16380/children’s%20media%20forum%20jun%2008. pdf. Accessed 24 September 2010, June 2008.
  3. Wilson N, Signal L, Nicholls S, Thomson G. Marketing fat and sugar to children on New Zealand television. Preventive Medicine 2006;42(2):96-101.
  4. Wilson N, Signal L, Nicholls S, Thomson G. Hazardous and beneficial nutritional messages in 858 televised food advertisements during children’s viewing hours. New Zealand Medical Journal 2006;119(1233).
  5. Institute of Medicine (U.S.) Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth. In: McGinnis J, Appleton Gootman J, Kraak V, editors. Food marketing to children and youth: threat or opportunity? Washington DC: National Academy of Sciences, 2006.
  6. Committee on Food Marketing and the Diets of Children and Youth. Food Marketing to Children and Youth: threat or opportunity? In: McGinnis JM, Gootman J, Kraak VI, editors. Washington DC: Institute of Medicine, National Academy of Sciences, 2006.
  7. Wilde P. Self-regulation and the response to concerns about food and beverage marketing to children in the United States. Nutrition reviews 2009;67(3):155-166.
  8. Federal Trade Commission. Marketing food to children and adolescents: a review of industry expenditures, activities, and self-regulation. Washington DC: Federal Trade Commission, July 2008.
  9. Utter J, Faeamani G, Malakellis M, Vanualailai N, Kremer P, Scragg R, et al. Lifestyle and obesity in South Pacific youth: baseline results from the Pacific Obesity Prevention in Communities (OPIC) Project in New Zealand, Fiji, Tonga and Australia. Auckland: School of Population Health, The University of Auckland, 2008.
  10. Phoenix Research. Survey of public opinions about advertising food to children: understanding attitudes in New Zealand. Auckland: Peak Group, November 2007.
  11. Magnus A, Haby MM, Carter R, Swinburn B. The cost-effectiveness of removing television advertising of high-fat and/or high-sugar food and beverages to Australian children. International Journal of Obesity 2009;33(10):1094-1102
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