Sacrificing children’s health for corporate wealth

Marketing unhealthy food to children

Mimi Tatlow-Golden & Roland Kupka
A boy eating junk food
09 November 2021

A generation of children in East Asia and the Pacific is growing up surrounded by advertisements and promotions for food and drink. Images of oversized burgers and ice-cold drinks jostle for space in shopping malls, on public transport and TV, at sports events, in schools and increasingly on social media. The promotions are enticing: ‘Up to 60% off!’, ‘Buy 2 for 1!’, ‘Free toy!’. The slogans and images suggest happiness and joy, love and health with the first bite or sip. A new video highlights the scale and impact of food marketing on children in the region.

Are these highly-processed, heavily-promoted products good for our children? The sad fact is that most of them are worryingly full of unhealthy fats, sugar and salt and lacking essential nutrients. A UNICEF study in the Philippines analysed 1,035 posts and videos on Facebook, Instagram and YouTube advertising 20 food products and brands popular with children and families. They included fast foods, salty snacks, noodles, cheese, ice cream, chocolate, cakes, sweet carbonated, milk and yogurt-based drinks. Nearly every one of these posts (99%) was considered unhealthy by the World Health Organization (WHO) and unsuitable for advertising to children.

A snack machine with candy

Even more worrying, this unhealthy ‘advertised diet’ is being promoted by the very people that children admire and follow. A study undertaken in five countries – China, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mongolia, and the Philippines – found that popular social media influencers, music and sporting heroes actively promote brands of highly processed, unhealthy foods through appealing and often funny posts. Furthermore, food and drink brands in these countries adopt creative strategies in social media using emotive images and language, including ‘cool crowd’ messaging with bright graphics, pop culture references and competitions; ‘tasty and fun’ messages using happiness and youth-centred language; ‘active life’ advertising sharing health information, and emphasis on ‘family pleasure and bonding’, collective joy and nutritional benefits.

The marketing of unhealthy food and drink brings rich rewards – to those selling them. Children as young as two years old can recognise brands and, with regular reminders through brief marketing moments, can remain brand loyal for the rest of their lives. Children interviewed as part of the Philippines study said that, although they did not generally like adverts on the internet, they did like ads for burgers, pizza, fries, fried chicken, milk tea, doughnuts, and instant noodles, and they asked their parents to buy these foods when they saw the ads.

Junk food shop

Action has to be taken, and governments are rising to the challenge. In several countries of the region, national and local governments have banned the sale and marketing of unhealthy food and drink in schools. In some cases, the ban has been extended to the areas surrounding schools. Supported by a UNICEF evidence paper, the Government of Thailand is going a step further and is considering legislation to prohibit the marketing of unhealthy food and drink through multiple channels.

  1. Adopt mandatory legislation to restrict marketing of unhealthy items and brands accessible to children.
  2. Ensure regulations are comprehensive covering children up to 18 years of age and all settings, times and media channels when children are exposed to marketing.
  3. Monitor and enforce regulations using an independent government agency and robust enforcement mechanisms.
  4. Increase knowledge among professionals and the public. Although knowledge alone cannot protect children and families against the power of marketing, it is important to build public understanding about the impact of marketing for highly processed foods on children’s attitudes and eating.


About the author:

Mimi Tatlow-Golden is a Senior Lecturer at The Open University UK and Roland Kupka is the Nutrition Regional Advisor at UNICEF East Asia and Pacific

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The UNICEF Blog promotes children’s rights and well-being, and ideas about ways to improve their lives and the lives of their families. We bring you insights and opinions from the world's leading child rights experts and accounts from UNICEF's staff on the ground. The opinions expressed on the UNICEF Blog are those of the author(s) and may not necessarily reflect UNICEF's official position.

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