Blurred lines: Food marketing and digital content



TYPE Prevention Centre News

Exposure to unhealthy food through mass media, especially food marketing, is contributing to myriad factors associated with the childhood obesity epidemic. In response to the mounting evidence on the harmful effects of food marketing on children’s diets, in 2010 the member states of the World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed a set of 12 recommendations for the marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children.

The aim of the WHO recommendations was to guide member states to create new and/or strengthen existing policies on food marketing to children. Since the endorsement of these recommendations in 2010, more countries have instituted food marketing policies to protect children from being targeted.

Despite these efforts, food marketing regulations do not completely protect children from exposure to unhealthy foods as these policies are narrowly focused on traditional food advertising that is mostly distributed through broadcast media. 

However, there are significant and emerging platforms of food content in today’s media, both in television cooking shows and short-form culinary videos, which can be found on YouTube and various social networking sites. While these platforms may not be advertising in the traditional sense, the way food content is presented and portrayed may blur lines and make it hard to distinguish when something is or isn’t advertising material.

Television cooking shows occupy prime-time slots and attract wide audiences while enjoying cross-border, global popularity. An entire channel, the Food Network, is dedicated to the genre, and cooking programs like MasterChef and Bake Off have enjoyed wide success.

In many countries, there are channels that are dedicated to cooking programs and TV cooking shows that are clearly created for younger audiences, with celebrity chefs that are not also entertainment figures but also as endorsers of big brands that sponsor the cooking programs.

Food content also has a large and growing presence in digital media. There are multiple curators of food content, ranging from food-related posts by ordinary people to influencers whose food content reaches millions of potential consumers.

Digital media also create a stream of algorithm-curated content for each individual user. This means new content, including food content, can be tailored to the consumer based on their interactions with other posts. This is creating a problem where digital media is blurring the lines between what is food advertising and what is actual ‘organic’ content.

There is also content crossover between television cooking shows and online media. Cooking shows and celebrity chefs often have social media pages and YouTube channels through which they share content, and market and encourage discussion about their shows.

This amplifies the volume of food content across the mass media and increases the chances of coming across food content without seeking it. Consequently, even people that do not necessarily watch cooking shows may encounter the content online, as it may be auto-played on platforms like YouTube or encountered via a social media algorithm when a user has been searching for recipes. This leaves room for children to be exposed to unhealthy food content, despite regulations.

Policymakers need to start paying attention to these platforms. According to research, the nutritional content of recipes prepared on TV cooking shows and social media culinary videos do not meet international guidelines for healthy diets. In addition, experiments on adolescents revealed that these platforms do have effects on food choice behaviour. This lines up with a growing body of literature on the effects of cooking shows and digital food content on their audiences.

To fully protect young audiences from exposure to food messages through media, regulation must be expanded to consider other platforms of exposure to food content and newer forms of food marketing.

This can be done by expanding the scope of the WHO recommendations for marketing of food and non-alcoholic beverages to children.

The WHO recommendations were instrumental in stimulating global regulatory action to protect young audiences from the harmful effects of food and beverage marketing and may be a good start to initiate a global discussion on a more comprehensive approach to protecting young audiences from unhealthy food media messages.

Given that exposure to food content through mass media is known to have effects on behaviour, a broader focus on all modes of exposure to negative nutrition messages is needed urgently, regardless of its medium. Only with concerted international effort can policymakers tackle this emerging problem, hopefully making children healthier and happier in the process.

This piece was first published in Policy Forum, Asia and the Pacific’s platform for public policy analysis and opinion.