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January 23, 2020 | 4 minute read

Building Momentum on Food Marketing: The US Perspective

Food marketing is everywhere – in grocery stores, in restaurants, on television, on the Internet and social media, at movies and sporting events, even in schools. We are flooded with targeted content promoting foods and drinks high in fat, sugar, and salt. This repeated exposure to junk food ads can easily derail even our best intentions to eat a healthy, cancer-protective diet. Food marketing aimed at children and adolescents is particularly problematic, as they are still developing the capacity to distinguish between advertising and programming or understand the persuasive intent of advertising.

According to a new report from AICR’s sister organization, the World Cancer Research Fund International (WCRF), a wealth of evidence shows that advertising affects children’s eating and drinking behavior, preferences, requests, nutrition knowledge and food intake. The report is the third in WCRF’s Building Momentum series, which is aimed at helping policymakers overcome common barriers to implementing evidence-informed nutrition policy. The report provides lessons learned and best practices for reducing food and beverage marketing to children and youth.  WCRF’s report concludes that protecting children from harmful marketing practices is a human rights issue and affirms international consensus for marketing restrictions to be put in place.

Political and legal considerations make mandatory federal restrictions on food marketing to children and adolescents infeasible in the US, but public policy work at the state and local levels, voluntary food industry efforts and pressure from advocates are helping to successfully reduce unhealthy food and drink marketing in the US. For example, several local and national retailers have voluntarily reduced candy and other unhealthy snacks in their checkout aisles, a place where impulse purchases are common. There is also a bill pending in California that would remove sugary drinks from checkout aisles.

As Americans spend about half their food dollars away from home, restaurants are an important source of food marketing. At least 25 major restaurant chains have voluntarily removed sugary drinks from kids meals, which are often heavily marketed in and out of the store. In addition, three states and several localities have passed bills requiring kids meals to have healthy beverages as the default options.

While progress has also been made in reducing school food marketing, there is more to be done. Federal law requires all school districts to have local wellness policies that limit marketing to foods and drinks that meet nutrition standards that allow them to be served in schools. However, the resulting policies and their enforcement vary widely. In addition, these policies may not apply outside of school hours (such as for sports team uniforms) or to brands instead of individual products.

Major food companies have also made voluntary commitments to limit food marketing to kids, such as through the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative, a BBB national program. While nutrition criteria that these companies agree to meet for their child-directed marketing have recently been strengthened, they do not apply to marketing on family shows that kids frequently watch and are limited to programs targeting kids under 12. Expert recommendations issued in 2015 provide suggestions for strengthening the types of marketing addressed by these voluntary policies, many of which have not yet been implemented. In addition, there has been increased scrutiny applied to online and digital food marketing as a result of the recent Children Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) and actions by the Federal Trade Commission.

WCRF’s report provides helpful considerations to keep in mind when designing a marketing policy – whether it is voluntary or mandatory.  Five key questions include:

  • What legal measure should be used?
  • Who should be protected?
  • Which forms of marketing should be restricted?
  • What level of marketing should be restricted?
  • Which foods and beverages should be restricted?

The responses to these questions will be useful in determining what form of marketing policy will be most useful in achieving the desired goals. In addition, the report recommends that governments consider the national and local context, build a strong evidence base, consider policy design, integrate monitoring and evaluation to ensure the policy has its intended effect and be prepared to defend it.

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