Marketing food to children on the Internet

May 12, 2015

Childhood obesity is a serious and costly health problem in Australia, and children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing is recognised as a contributory factor.

Considerable debate continues about how best to address this problem in the face of slow government action to regulate unhealthy food marketing. Meanwhile, food manufacturers continue to aggressively market and sell energy-dense, nutrition-poor food and drinks to children.

The majority of discussion about children’s exposure to junk food and drink marketing has centred around nutrition, food choices and parenting, and considerably less on the ethics of marketing to children. Marketing to children is ethically problematic because, as research has found, children under the age of five years have difficulty distinguishing advertising from editorial content, and even older children who understand the persuasive intent of advertising are still influenced by it.

A trend has been observed for marketing communications to move from traditional advertising on TV to marketing on the Internet. Techniques used in marketing on the Internet are ethically problematic because they use stealth techniques that fail the requirements for disclosure and transparency, resulting in children being unaware that they are being marketed to.

Researchers from Nutrition and Dietetics, Public Health and Law at Flinders University, led by Dr Kaye Mehta, have attempted to shed light on the public perceptions of ethical aspects of food marketing to which children are exposed.

The study interviewed 13 parents and their children (aged between 8 and 13) from South Australia. Parents and children expressed concerns about the ethics of marketing, in particular, threatening children’s health by promoting junk food and drinks, and undermining parental authority by encouraging pester power.

While worried about the use of stealth techniques that subvert children’s awareness of marketing, parent and child views on rights and responsibilities represented a complex mixture of idealistic and pragmatic positions.

While acknowledging that corporations needed to change their food marketing in order to protect children’s interests, they were also sympathetic to the need for corporations to make profits. Both parents and children tended to default to the individualist discourse of placing responsibility on parents to mitigate the risks posed by unhealthy food marketing.

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Their dilemmas are not dissimilar to the broader policy debate in Australia on the matter of food marketing to children, which is stuck on the question of responsibility for the problem.

The stalemate on statutory regulations to protect children from exposure to junk food marketing could be advanced by stronger use of ethical arguments to protect children from harmful exploitation and to protect parents from forces that undermine their authority.


This article by Dr Kaye Mehta, Senior Lecturer in Nutrition and Dietetics in the School of Health Science at Flinders, is one in a regular series on issues in nutrition and dietetics.

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