An initiative of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Protecting Kids from Harmful Food and Beverage Advertising

Food marketing to children


June 8th, 2021


From virtual schooling, to streaming TV shows, to online grocery shopping, the use of the internet and social media has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic—particularly for children and teens. As a result, kids are exposed more than ever to a steady flow of ads for fast foods, soft drinks, and other unhealthy products—often unbeknownst to parents and teachers.

We spoke with the lead authors of a new report, Big Food, Big Tech, and the Global Childhood Obesity Pandemic, Jeff Chester and Kathryn Montgomery about how food and beverage companies have seized on the pandemic as an opportunity to promote their unhealthy products to children and teens, using high-tech tools to penetrate nearly every aspect of their lives.


How has the COVID-19 pandemic impacted the way children and teens are being exposed to food and beverage advertising in digital settings?


We’ve been tracking this marketplace for decades, watching it evolve and grow and doing what we could to alert the public, the health community and policymakers about what’s wrong with it. But then when the pandemic happened, we started seeing research showing this connection between obesity and susceptibility to COVID in very dramatic ways—and particularly in young people, not just older people. So, we thought it was important to understand how marketing in the digital environment, where kids are living their lives, can make them susceptible to childhood obesity. And it just really has not been talked about or looked at very much.


The pandemic greatly accelerated people’s use of and reliance on digital media—for everything from school to entertainment to buying groceries. And food and beverage companies knew there were more children online. The food and beverage companies, and the advertising industry generally, invested heavily in understanding the behaviors of young people during the pandemic. And now they’ve positioned themselves to come out even stronger as marketing and advertising entities in this kind of new post-pandemic world that we will be living in.

So, in tracking what the industry was doing, we could see how it was working to make sure that digital became an even more effective medium to market to young people. We’ve seen that food and beverage companies, often hawking unhealthy foods, intend to remain a major presence in the lives of young people, not just in the United States, but all over the world, penetrating every piece of this digital landscape.


What role does data play in the ways that food and beverage companies are marketing to children online? What kinds of data are these companies collecting and how?  


Every Fortune 500 company in the world has recognized that in order to remain successful today, you have to be able to reach people wherever they are. So, what’s happened is that Coca-Cola, Pepsi, KFC and other leading food and beverage companies, have been collaborating with Google, Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. The food companies have also been learning from the tech companies. They have assembled their own very profound big data operations that gather and analyze and are able to use real-time, unlimited amounts of information about families and communities.

This data is gathered in a myriad of ways, from mobile apps, YouTube channels, websites, video games, partnerships with advertisers. And then it’s analyzed to understand our emotion, fears and behaviors. And platforms are making predictions about how we should each individually be treated—using data to create personalized, targeted ads. These advertisements can quickly evolve in real time, regardless of what channel.

As you know, the heart of the digital media system is data collection. It’s your geolocation, your health interests, what you buy at the grocery store. But the takeaway is that the food and beverage companies are now data brokers. They are big data companies, and there are lots of implications there about their role in surveillance and the potential discriminatory impacts.


Do companies target specific groups of kids with this marketing?


In terms of data, there’s a really strong emphasis on so-called “multicultural marketing,” which involves collecting a lot of information about black and brown communities. Black and brown youth are trendsetters in terms of digital culture. So we found the data are being used in a very concerted way to target these communities, which is also very disturbing. And there’s a lot of research about the disparate impacts of all of this on communities of color.

There are some protections in the digital environment, but what we learned and what we’ve been learning is that these marketers are finding ways to get around those protections. And the report calls for more regulation to address those practices.


In the mid-to-late ‘90s, when we saw the internet coming, we had allies. We launched a whole campaign during the Clinton administration saying, “You have to pass privacy legislation, comprehensive privacy legislation.” Eventually, Congress passed a law called COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act), which is why it says on websites, “If you’re under 13, you need parental permission,” or “Don’t be here if you’re under 13.” It’s why Facebook’s terms of service say, “You’re supposed to be over 13.” So for ages 12 and under, there’s an opt-in requirement.

But once you turn 13 in the United States, you’re treated like an adult in terms of your data collection. There’s a no holds barred approach to data collection. With more and more kids online during the pandemic, the companies were able to gather more and more data. They’re able to merge that data about children with data about their parents. The whole package of your personal life and the lives of your friends and acquaintances in your communities is constantly being surveilled, which is why people are now calling it “surveillance capitalism.”


So what steps can the tech industry take to protect children’s health and data?


Hopefully, one of the contributions that we’re making in this report is to put the spotlight on the tech industry’s food marketing practices, because they really have been out of the public eye and have not been held accountable for their role in all of this. And these companies have been creating the cultural spaces that children are growing up in—in terms of the design and role of data marketing, and the behaviors that they’re influencing. They are so powerful. And yet they really have not been a part of the public debate about what we should do about childhood obesity.

So, we really believe that in addition to the food industry, the tech industry needs to make changes. And there are lots of things they can do. I think we are going to need government to require them to do it. And we’re already seeing that happen in the UK and some other places, where government is influencing the internal operations and policies of these companies. They’ve been off the hook for too long, in a whole lot of areas.


I do think that they’re not feeling any pressure from the public health community. The entire health system in the United States and globally—but especially the United States—is being transformed as a result of digital technology and communications, and the pandemic has accelerated that. The companies are not feeling any pressure from public health experts or advocates. The tech industry has been let off the hook when it comes to their food and beverage advertising generally.

Now that said, because of the stronger regulatory requirements on the books, and emerging in Europe, Google has had to come out with a stronger set of policies to defend itself from further regulation. Google has agreed not to have any food and beverage data targeting children on YouTube. And that was a voluntary agreement. So there’s been a little movement, but in the absence of pressure from the public health community and policymakers, I don’t think we’re going to see the platforms change.

Literally yesterday, I saw that Pepsi is writing for Google’s blog saying, “Hey, we’ve worked together and we’ve done all these things.” And I just read yesterday that KFC said, “Ah, TikToK, what a great platform. You got to use it. It’s the best.” So, they’re totally collaborating and they’re not paying any attention to the consequences. And one of the things that we have been doing for this project is we collect all the industry case studies. They publish these case studies, where they say “We reached millions and millions of people. We sold millions and millions of burgers, and it cost us $1.99 because it was digital.” So, it works.


What can be done to limit children’s exposure to junk food marketing and online settings, and does the report make any specific policy recommendations?


We include in the report an overview of what’s been going on around the world with some of the major international health bodies, like the World Health Organization (WHO), particularly WHO Europe and children’s organizations like UNICEF, which have also been looking at this problem and calling for policies to create a healthy digital environment for young people. And governments in the UK, the EU and Latin America, along with other places, have been doing this. But nothing has been happening here in the U.S. over the last five, 10 years, really.

So, we have drawn from a lot of that research and policies that have been in development and have been put in place around the world to come up with a framework that includes elements that we think are very important. And they include, for example, the need to ensure that not only are young children protected by our policies around unfair food marketing, but adolescents need to be as well. There’s a lot of research on adolescent developmental vulnerabilities that have now been recognized by many policymakers and researchers around the world. There need to be some standardized uniform policies created by nutrition experts about what foods are unhealthy.

And there are a number of other things about the kinds of techniques that are used, about the role of racial discrimination and the way companies are appropriating cultural symbols. Lots of things that are part of a comprehensive framework from which advocates and policymakers can develop proposals for real government actions. And we’re calling on government agencies like the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate this and to resume their role as regulators on these issues, which they played in earlier years, not that long ago.


Yes. And as a result of the report, we’re going to ask the FTC to open up an inquiry into the unhealthy food and beverage marketing, working with other public health organizations. There’s growing interest from both sides of the aisle in Congress to protect young people, including teens, from unfair and discriminatory digital advertising practices. And food and beverage marketing is perhaps one of the best examples. So, we’re informing members of Congress about our report and hope that this will help to increase the focus on privacy and digital platform accountability.

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