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Dublin: 4 °C Monday 17 February, 2020
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Food advertising: 'Brands get onto children's newsfeeds and interact like real life friends'

We need to stand up to the the lobbying power of the multinational food industry, writes Chris Macey.

Chris Macey

IMAGINE THERE’S A stranger following your child around, trying to become their friend and dressing it all up as a bit of harmless fun. But you know they’re putting your youngster’s welfare and health at risk.

You have no way of confronting them directly. And don’t bother calling the authorities, they know what’s happening, they know the full extent of the danger, but won’t do anything about it. What would you do?

This is not a hypothetical question – if you have a child aged between seven and 17, the likelihood is it’s happening to them. And it’s time parents were told exactly what’s going on.

Tactics of the world’s best marketing brains

Junk food brands have achieved a wholly inappropriate proximity to our children – pestering them relentlessly in school, at home and even in their bedrooms, mostly through their smart phones. It’s almost like each child has their own personal marketer in tow wherever they go.

You might think this is over-dramatic. That’s the initial view of many parents who’ve taken part in research into online junk food marketing to children.

But when they discover the subtle tactics employed against their children by some of the best marketing brains in the world, they quickly change their tune.

It’s important to spell out why this matters

It’s 14 years since the link between junk food marketing and childhood obesity was proved. The evidence is so overwhelming that junk adverts on Irish television were restricted in 2013.

But there’s still no regulation of digital marketing that’s more personalised, effective and therefore potentially even more damaging.

Sadly that damage is all too apparent. We now have children as young as eight with high blood pressure, and teenagers showing early signs of heart disease once seen mainly in middle age. Junk food marketing isn’t solely responsible, of course.

But it is a big ticket cause of obesity that must be dealt with if we’re serious about saving many of our children from lives dominated by ill-health, chronic disease and, ultimately, premature death.

Mining social media for personal information

Most parents are shocked to learn how much junk food marketers know about their children, the huge amounts of personal information extracted from them by digital platforms like Facebook: who they are, where they live, where they go, what their hobbies are, who their friends are and much more.

They deploy this information to connect with children on a one-to-one basis, using what they call the 3Es: powerful engagement, emotional and entertainment based tactics.

There’s a strong emphasis on fun and humour, using sports stars and celebrities, festivals, special days and competitions – like the best cheesy Dad jokes competition one big pizza brand ran in association with Father’s Day.

Getting inside kids’ heads

The effect is that children associate positive emotions and excitement with junk brands and often don’t even realise they’re being advertised at.

The brands get onto their newsfeeds and interact just like real friends, effectively becoming part of children’s social lives. They’re even made into marketers themselves by tagging friends in ads.

All this is delivered by happy and colourful brand characters designed to be attractive to children. But behind the goofy smile there’s a real stranger, a junk food marketer who doesn’t care tuppence about your child. They just want to get them to eat as much junk as possible.

Some people blame parents, but this doesn’t stack up

We’re all being besieged by wider forces – and that’s why over 60% of adults, including, no doubt, many parent-blamers, are also overweight or obese.

Looming large among these is the ever-increasing ubiquity of cheap and heavily marketed junk food and drinks. The pester power parents are subjected to is largely generated by junk brands pestering children.

These multinationals’ deep pockets have changed people’s notion of what constitutes a normal diet, effectively standing the food pyramid on its head by advertising as if their products were for everyday use, not to be consumed rarely and in small amounts.

We know this is fuelling obesity, we know obesity is damaging children and we know the state is failing in its duty of care to protect children’s health.

It’s clear this duty will only be discharged if a force emerges to match the lobbying power of the multinational industry.

Chris Macey is Head of Advocacy with Irish Heart. If you want to help us take a stand against the menace of junk marketing, sign the Stop Targeting Kids petition on www.irishheart.ie/stk.

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Chris Macey

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