Regulating Junk Food Marketing

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Scholars critique the scarcity of regulation surrounding food marketing to children.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 15 million American children qualify as obese.

In a recent article, Myriam Ertz and Guillaume Le Bouhart of Canada’s University of Québec in Chicoutimi categorize junk food marketing to children as “unethical” due to its promotion of obesity and manipulation of vulnerable minds.

Childhood obesity not only causes physical ailments, including type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, but it also leads to social and emotional complications. Rates of childhood obesity vary across racial and socioeconomic demographics, creating a health epidemic that most adversely affects minority communities.

Despite the associated individual and community harms, food marketers encourage the overconsumption of manufactured foods by intentionally targeting young children with an assortment of media strategies designed to disguise unhealthy foods with tempting branding.

Ertz and Le Bouhart recognize that children themselves do not typically purchase the junk food promoted to them; rather, children’s parents or guardians control the purchase decisions, even when the end consumer is ultimately a child. But parents and guardians often succumb to their children’s so-called pester power. They may even perceive their children to be capable of making their own independent consumption choices about food and thus may allow their children to direct purchasing decisions.

Ertz and Le Bouhart find that most parents do recognize the role media advertising plays in influencing their children’s food choices. Indeed, many parents hold negative opinions of junk food marketing and generally want public authorities to regulate the industry’s targeting of children.

The most common statutory regulation of junk food marketing involves restricting the content and timing of television advertisements, such as by prohibiting junk food marketing during children’s programming, Ertz and Le Bouhart explain.

But these regulatory strategies remain uncommon on other platforms, such as social media applications, and on physical packaging. As a result, Ertz and Le Bouhart note that, in many cases, television regulations result in only negligible decreases in junk food advertisements because marketers simply transfer their efforts to other advertising channels.

In addition, Ertz and Le Bouhart classify certain types of advertising, such as brand mascots, as most harmful to children. Brand mascots are “friendly, colorful, eye-catching characters” that effectively capture children’s attention and can blur the distinction between entertainment and advertising. Regulation of the use of brand mascots are generally quite permissive, according to Ertz and Le Bouhart.

They attribute the laxity of current regulations to the combined effects of public opinion, consumer movements, and corporate lobbying.

Although public opinion generally opposes increased regulation, Ertz and Le Bouhart explain that this generalization does not extend to children, for whom the public largely favors increased regulatory oversight. Public authorities, however, remain seemingly undecided between regulating junk food marketing more strongly or allowing food companies to self-regulate under the pressure from consumer opinion.

In alignment with public opinion, consumer movements and non-governmental organizations have pushed for increased regulation. Ertz and Le Bouhart recognize, however, that members of consumer movements also appear to distrust the public authorities responsible for regulating junk food marketing, leading them to rely on non-regulatory means of challenging the food industry, such as creating critical documentary films.

Corporate lobbyists, however, pressure policymakers to abandon or oppose regulations designed to constrain junk food marketing. Ertz and Le Bouhart provide several examples where lobbying stymied regulatory efforts.

For instance, after the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received several complaints requesting it ban junk food television advertisements to children, corporate lobbyists initiated a campaign to oppose any regulations that would limit junk food marketing, Erts and Le Bouhart explain. The FTC decided not to take any steps to regulate advertising to children.

Ertz and Le Bouhart contend that this FTC decision has larger implications. In the future, FTC staff will be less likely to see similar requests for action as being viable, ultimately shuttering one possible remedial avenue for the time being.

Ertz and Le Bouhart assert that, perhaps as a result of these failures, past efforts to constrain the junk food market have focused more on prevention and education than on regulating food marketers. Ertz and Le Bouhart, however, identify advertisements as the most influential factor driving unhealthy consumption and advocate a change in this approach.

Condemning the laissez-faire attitude of policymakers for enabling food companies to implement “seductive and deceptive” marketing strategies targeting the most vulnerable class of consumers, Ertz and Le Bouhart ultimately champion comprehensive regulation to protect children.