When Self-Regulation Is Not Enough: A Look at Food Marketing to Children


Childhood obesity is a problem that has received a growing amount of national attention, largely due to Michelle Obama’s health initiatives as First Lady. One area related to child well-being that has yet to see a lot of policy development is food marketing to children. Currently, food marketing is self-regulated by the advertising industry through programs like the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI). Recent analysis suggests that this type of regulation does not adequately protect children or hold companies accountable for their marketing practices.

Food marketing’s link to childhood obesity

Legislation introduced in Baltimore in early January would require businesses that sell or advertise sugary drinks to warn kids (and parents) about the risk of obesity associated with those products. These warnings are already in place in San Francisco. Policies like banning the sale of jumbo-sized drinks in New York and taxes on sugary drinks have been overturned or failed in other ways. Other countries are considering policies on this issue as well. In the UK, a tax on sugary drinks has been proposed by several health organizations, including the British Medical Association. This recommendation is significant because Prime Minister David Cameron is currently working on a strategy to combat childhood obesity in the UK.

Food marketing to children has been contributing to childhood obesity. The chairwoman of the Health Committee in the UK (who also supports the tax on sugary drinks) said that additional action on the issue of advertising campaigns is needed to curb childhood obesity. A recent analysis completed by the University of Liverpool in the UK analyzed 22 studies on food marketing and found that the practice increases food consumption in children, but not for adults. A study completed in the Netherlands also showed that children playing a candy advergame online ate more candy than those playing a toy advergame.

How industry self-regulation works

Currently, much of food marketing to children is self-regulated by the advertising industry. The Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) is an organization formed by several food and beverage companies alongside the Better Business Bureau in 2006. Companies that are members of CFBAI (including McDonald’s, General Mills, and Coca-Cola) pledge to use CFBAI’s uniform nutrition criteria to determine those foods that can and cannot be advertised to children under 12. The nutrition criteria require a specific amount of saturated fat, trans- fat, sodium, and total sugars allowed in food advertised to children. The criteria also include a nutrition component, advocating the inclusion of fruit, vegetables, non- or low-fat dairy, whole grains, and other essential nutrients in a healthy diet. This applies to all advertising platforms including television and internet sites. Companies also pledge not to advertise to children younger than 6. To ensure that these commitments are kept, CFBAI staff monitor ads and report their findings to the public. Each company also submits an annual compliance report to CFBAI.

Is self-regulation sufficient? 

Food marketing toward children was recently analyzed by the UCONN Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity and published in their Snack F.a.c.t.s. report. Some compliance issues with CFBAI standards were noted in the report. Of the 10 brands advertised mostly to children on TV, four were manufactured by CFBAI companies but CFBAI had not approved these brands for children’s advertising. Additionally, the Snack f.a.c.t.s report discovered advertising that was directed towards children under age 6 and recommended that companies follow their CFBAI pledge and not advertise to this age group.

CFBAI guidelines have several shortcomings. One limitation is that the guidelines only apply to children under the age of 12. The Snack F.a.c.t.s report recommends that the guidelines should apply to children up to the age of 14. They also recommend that the CFBAI should close loopholes in their definitions of media directed at children, and use additional measures to identify ads and ensure that products meet nutritional standards. Another suggestion is for the CFBAI to adopt the Smart Snacks nutrition standards (what schools use) so products that cannot be sold to children in schools will not be advertised to children. Nearly 75% of the brands advertised to children did not meet the Smart Snacks nutrition standards.

There are also racial disparities in food marketing. The Snack F.a.c.t.s found both Hispanic and black children were targeted in ads more frequently than white children. 90% of the advertising on Spanish language TV was for sweet and savory snack brands. Between 2010 and 2014, advertising for sweet snacks and savory snacks increased by 30% and 551%, respectively, while advertising for yogurt (a healthier product) fell by 93%. Black children saw 64% more snack food ads than white children. Black teens saw more than twice as many ads as white teens. Among black teens, there were 129% more ads for savory snacks compared to white teens, an increase of 71% more ads since 2010.

More protection is needed for children

The main purpose of advertising is to sell products. While self-regulation certainly provides positive press for those companies promoting Corporate Social Responsibility, it does not adequately protect children from potentially harmful advertisements. In an effort to curb the obesity crisis, taking action against food advertising to children will eventually become a necessary step.

Image source: US Right to Know.