The web of influence: Restricting junk food marketing in a digital world is a healthy step in the right direction

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“There is unequivocal evidence that obesity is influenced by marketing of unhealthy foods – foods that are high in saturated fats, salt, and sugars.”  


On 10 November 2020, the UK Government set out its plan to implement a total restriction on online advertising of unhealthy food products. If passed, this would be a world-leading protective public health measure to improve everyone’s health and wellbeing and to reduce their risk of developing noncommunicable diseases. Everyone has the right to health under the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), whilst children are further protected under the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which imposes a duty on governments to act in the best interests of the child. The United Nations Human Rights Council also asserts that “the same human rights that people have offline must be protected online”.

Currently in its consultation phase, the proposal is part of the tackling obesity strategy launched by the Prime Minister. Today, around 63% of adults are above a healthy weight and 1 in 3 children leaving primary school are already overweight or living with obesity. This proposal set out concern over the lack of transparency due to the absence of independent and publicly available data on online audiences, as well as concerns over continued inadvertent breaches of unhealthy food rules. This proposal also set out liability and enforcement considerations, where this would remain with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and propose that advertisers are liable for compliance and those who commit repeated or severe breaches relating to HFSS marketing would face stronger penalties that include civil sanctions.

There is unequivocal evidence that obesity is influenced by marketing of unhealthy foods – foods that are high in saturated fats, salt, and sugars (HFSS). In realising the right to health for children, one of the core recommendations of the WHO Commission on Ending Childhood Obesity is to reduce exposure to all such marketing. This need is made even more urgent by the pandemic, considering evidence that those who are overweight or living with obesity are at greater risk of being seriously ill from COVID-19.

People across the UK access digital media avidly, predominantly on mobile devices and laptops, preferring social media and video streaming sites. Digital marketing, including for unhealthy foods, has achieved greater ad attention and brand awareness, resulting in higher product sales. The food industry has been rewriting the rules for reaching people in the Internet age and through sharing functions, the consumers effectively acting as marketers. Thus, curbing online advertising of unhealthy foods is critical to reduce adverse impact of noncommunicable diseases. 

There is a strong case, backed with evidence-based research, on why taking junk food advertising out of online platforms would benefit both children and adults. Studies have shown that people are increasingly spending their time online, including on social media, meaning their exposure to digital marketing has also increased. This comes amidst the unhealthy food industry’s continued efforts to target both children and adults on social media and other technological devices. For instances, online unhealthy food marketing can also appear in the forms of brand and third-party websites, interactive games, product placement, and mobile marketing. They also have egregious features to target children through interactive features and brand spokescharacters. Worryingly, a recent study finds that from the age of three, children can recognise more unhealthy than healthy food brand logos. Technological devices are now used by younger and younger children.

Online advertisement from the unhealthy food industry has increased by 450% in the past decade. This increased exposure to unhealthy food advertising influences consumer preferences. Although this data was taken 2017 before the COVID-19 pandemic, it is possible that exposure to such advertising would have increased as a result of people staying at home during lockdown. 

Digital media platforms collect vast and extensive personal data on all their users, offering advertisers detailed options for targeted ads. Consumers are targeted with persuasive messages that are tailored to their core psychological profiles that reflect their preferences and needs at a much instinctual level, especially at those who are the most vulnerable. Marketing enormously influences our food choice and can be particularly insidious that affects us at an unconscious level. Digital media has amplified the power of marketing practices in traditional media.

A total restriction policy will not be without its challenges. For instance, there are issues with cross-border marketing and the lack of vetting process for certain online advertisements. Thus, the Government also needs to ensure that the total restriction policy is prospective to encompass future challenges, considering the rapid development of digital platforms and devices. 

Last week’s consultation and the plan set out by the UK Government is to be welcomed. Everyone has the right to protection of their health, including when they are exercising their right to participation in digital media. Whilst the UK does have statutory restrictions on broadcast advertising for unhealthy foods around child-directed programming, existing regulations are insufficient to address the challenges of digital marketing. Restricting online advertising of unhealthy foods would be a significant step in the right direction.