Fast food and soft drink advertising contributes to childhood obesity

Advocacy groups and government representatives seek to bolster child-privacy legislation.

Here’s a question brands should consider: how brand safe is fast food? 

Not very, according to a report published by Berkeley Media Studies Group, Color of Change, UnidosUS and Center for Digital Democracy. 

The 72-page report shows that brands and platforms including McDonald’s, Unilever, Facebook and Twitch use technology-driven marketing tactics to sell high-sugar and high-sodium products to kids, leading to obesity.

Almost 20% of children between the ages of 2 and 19 are obese, with rates significantly higher among Hispanic, Black and Native American youth. Obesity is an underlying condition for higher risk of contracting and becoming hospitalized or dying from COVID-19, including among children.

Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, said that brands’ digital marketing tactics are largely to blame. 

“Food and beverage marketers, as well as platforms like Google and Facebook, have been at the forefront of deploying very powerful digital advertising and marketing techniques designed to encourage the consumption of foods that are harmful to the lives and future of [younger people] globally,” he said.  [Companies have built] their own arsenals of data profiling services [such as] artificial intelligence and machine learning to make predictions about the best way to advertise and to make sure those predictions become a reality.” 

The report, which was released just after the U.K. announced plans to restrict marketing of unhealthy foods to children, cites several case studies of how brands such as McDonald’s, Pepsi and Kellogg’s  reach younger audiences online. These include AR gaming experiences, contextual advertising and influencer marketing on platforms such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitch. 

These tactics are working. In 2020, children between the ages of 6 to 8 years-old cited McDonald’s as their number-one favorite brand, followed by YouTube, Oreo and M&Ms, according to youth market researchers Smarty Pants. Minors ages 9 to17 years-old cited YouTube first, followed by Oreo, Hershey’s, Cheetos and Doritos among the top 10. 

The issue presents the question of whether these marketing tactics violate the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998. 

“The industry generally is not transparent about the amount of proprietary data it collects,” said Kathryn C. Montgomery, Professor Emerita at American University and senior strategist at Center for Digital Democracy. “But we know that there is extensive data collection.” 

In the U.S., Senators Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.) introduced the Children and Teens’ Online Privacy Protection Act on Tuesday, which would prohibit internet companies from collecting personal information from anyone between the ages of 13 to 15 without their consent. The bill would also require platforms to allow users to eliminate personal information on a child or teen, and implement a “Digital Marketing Bill of Rights for Minors” that limits the collection of their personal information.

If passed, the bill would establish a Youth Privacy and Marketing Division at the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), responsible for addressing privacy of children and minors in regards to marketing messages. 

“[This bill] will address a broad range of problematic marketing practices that companies have been able to use up to now without any oversight or accountability,” said Katharina Kopp, director of policy for the Center for Digital Democracy and co-author of the reportin a statement. “Congress must pass this legislation without any delay and bring about real improvements in the lives of children and teens online.”

The bill is endorsed by groups including American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, Berkeley Media Studies Group, Campaign for a Children Now, Center for Digital Democracy, Commercial Free Childhood, Common Sense Media, Consumer Action, Consumer Federation of America, Color of Change, Focus on the Family and the Public Health Institute.

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