Predatory behavior on unhealthy foods marketed to children, study stresses need for government oversight
21 Nov 2022 --- An analysis published in The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics says that due to outdated and weakened government oversight, US children are not protected from companies’ unhealthy marketing techniques and stresses the need for federal regulation.
“The US overwhelmingly relies on industry self-regulation, which has not kept pace with modern marketing practices,” says Jennifer Pomeranz, study author and assistant professor of public health policy and management at New York University, School of Global Public Health.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) works to protect consumers from deceptive and unfair practices by corporations. The paper says that the FTC lacks authority over practices concerning direct advertising to children since 1980 when “congress stripped its authority.”
The researchers urge the US Congress to provide the FTC with the administration it needs to regulate unfair marketing and for the agency to examine online F&B marketing to end deceptive practices and techniques.
Exposure to children
The FTC suggested limiting commercials containing high-sugar food and drinks, which the US Congress considered unfair. The researchers also note that the FTC has not attempted to use its authority over deceptive acts and practices, likely due to concerns of a similar backlash.
The researchers explain that the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) includes a voluntary and insufficient approach to marketing nutritional standards to children. They continue to point out that the agency allows for “questionable marketing that makes nutritional standards irrelevant” as the initiative is limited to children below 12.
An important aspect is that children’s exposure to brands today goes “well beyond traditional television commercials.” Companies use several tactics and platforms to target the young audience.
Host-selling and influencer marketing is also described as an area that needs regulation as a character delivering a message to children. This practice is forbidden on television but lacks regulation on social media platforms and online marketing in general.
Another limitation is that it covers F&B marketing only and therefore does not apply to packaging or stores, which allows companies to introduce children to unhealthy food brands.
“Modern marketing practices are intended to blur the distinction between an ad and entertainment. Research indicates that even adults have difficulty identifying sponsored content online. So children surely need some protection from these predatory practices,” says Dariush Mozaffarian, study author and dean for policy of the Friedman School at Tufts University.
Calling for requirements
The analysis notes that when universities conduct studies on a vulnerable population such as children, the examination must be reviewed and approved by a board to align with the federal policy Common Rule and to receive a federal grant. They continue to say that companies receive large financial tax subsidies and argue that it is comparable to research grants.
There are no similar requirements for company marketing for children. They stress and exemplify that food companies may conduct psychological tests on children, while trying different tactics and messages to determine the most efficient way to sell its products by making them appeal to children and for parents to purchase them.
“The disparity in rules for academic institutions seeking to engage in marketing research, who must obtain children’s assent and parental consent, versus no requirements for for-profit entities engaging in the same activity, is striking,” stresses the researchers.
As parents are expected to protect their children and act as gatekeepers for many parts of life, opponents of government regulation have argued that it would diminish parental control.
“While this might have made sense when children were primarily watching television and parents had more control over what their children watched, parental oversight has become less feasible in the face of covert online marketing practices such as host-selling and influencer marketing. In today’s media landscape, parents have little ability to act as the sole deciding factor in what types of food are shown to their kids,” says Pomeranz.
“The US needs to move away from voluntary industry self-regulation to effective policies that account for current marketing practices.”
By Beatrice Wihlander
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