Sunday 25 February 2018

Junk food firms using manipulative and covert tech tools to target children

The obesity crisis is growing (Stock picture)
The obesity crisis is growing (Stock picture)
Eilish O'Regan

Eilish O'Regan

Junk food companies are using clever and manipulative digital marketing tactics to sell their products to children, a major report reveals today.

Foods laden with sugar and salt, which are contributing to high levels of obesity, are being promoted by highly inventive and furtive technology.

But there is little effective regulation of the online world in place to protect children.

The extent of the veiled manner in which children are being targeted is revealed in a report, 'Tackling Food Marketing to Children in a Digital World', published by the World Health Organisation.

Covert means include device fingerprinting - where children are tracked across various devices such as smartphones and iPads. Some use in-device cameras to record facial responses to marketing content.

Word-of-mouth marketing is used where friends make recommendations.

The report pointed out: "Children across Europe access digital media avidly, predominantly on mobile devices, generally favouring social media and video-viewing sites.

"Brands and marketers report that digital marketing amplifies advertising in traditional media, achieving greater ad attention and recall, greater intent to purchase and higher product sales."

Children are also being tempted with more obvious methods such as gifts, games, cartoon characters and competitions.

Parents and children may even be unaware that they are subjected to this advertising.

The digital age allows the control and influence behind the promotion of these sugary and salty foods to reach a new level, including the use of geolocation data.

This means that if people are in an area where a product is being sold that they can get real-time special offers to encourage them to "walk and buy".

Analytics even allow advertisers to know a person's "purchase history", even to the point of their favourite flavour of ice cream.

The World Health Organisation is now calling for urgent action and said offline regulation of marketing these foods to children needs to be extended to all digital environments.

The regulation should cover social media platforms, websites, game platforms and apps. It should also be flexible to incorporate new and evolving digital marketing.

The WHO said it is also necessary to define legal age, rather than leaving it to commercial interests to do so, and a clear minimum age for digital marketing should also be set at 16 years at least.

There needs to be effective enforcement and monitoring of digital marketing restrictions.

Read More: Marketing to pre-teens is a growing business for big players in tech

Regulatory agencies and policy-makers need to delegate parts of the task to internet platforms, obligating them to remove digital marketing of these foods accessible to children.

To support effective oversight and enforcement by regulatory agencies there needs to be meaningful sanctions introduced for non-compliance.

The health watchdog said these sanctions should apply to both the content creators and the digital platforms that are content intermediaries.

These include the likes of Facebook, YouTube and Instagram, and they should face sanctions if they fail to remove the content after they receive a notice, warned the report.

Irish Independent

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