Just like guns aren’t responsible for killing people, advertising doesn’t make anyone fat. But there is a link between the two, based on years of research that reveals exposure to food marketing contributes to overeating.
Now, the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has published a meta study conducted by psychologists at the University of Liverpool, who analyzed 22 published studies looking at the correlation between food marketing and food intake. The findings suggest that digital ads for junk food are as likely to make children overeat as ads seen on television.
Emma Boyland, lead author of the study, said she was surprised that digital ads didn’t show an even greater link to overeating given the relative absence of regulation restraining them.
"The surprising thing was that there was no difference in terms of effect size between TV and the Internet," she said. "There are so many different ways to deliver marketing online, you’d think that would play out in food intake."
The study comes at a sensitive time for food advertisers. A mounting body of new research is once again drawing a link between obesity and ads from fast-food companies — even those that purport to show "healthier" foods. As a result, health advocates in the US and UK are calling for further regulation of how marketers advertise to kids.
"We've got more regulations in the UK than we used to, and there are fewer food ads than there used to be," said Boyland. "But advertising is shifting to the Internet," where there "aren't as many regulations."
In the UK, junk food ads have been banned from Saturday morning cartoons since 2006. In November, Parliament issued a report calling to extend the ban on TV until 9 p.m. (It made no mention of digital ads.)
In the US, the FTC has so far resisted imposing regulations of any kind. But a strict culture of self-regulation guides the major food marketers, particularly when it comes to kids.
Presiding over that culture is the Council of Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI), which also dates back to 2006. Member companies, which include Mondelez, Burger King, McDonald’s, and Nestlé, must pledge to devote 100% of their child-targeted marketing to "better-for-you foods," and to limit the use of celebrities or movie tie-ins to foods that meet the CFAIB’s nutritional guidelines.
Elaine Kolish, director of the CFBAI, responded to the most recent study by pointing out that no single factor makes a child obese.
"It’s a multifaceted problem that needs a multifaceted response," she said.
But several new studies suggest that advertising is certainly a contributing factor, and possibly a significant one. In June, the journal Obesity Reviews published a meta-study that found a strong correlation between exposure to food cues (like commercials for hamburgers, for example) and a tendency to overeat.
"Why do we still allow food advertising when children can sit in front of TV cartoons, and in between they get exposed to burgers, fries, chocolate — things we know are nutritionally not the best?" an author of that study told NPR.
Perhaps most damning, a 2015 study (also authored by Boyland) found that ads for fast-food restaurants that feature "healthy" foods — just as the CFBAI guidelines require — did not drive healthier choices in children, but rather drove a preference for fast food in general. And a 2013 study found that 75% of advertisers participating in the CFBAI continued to advertise foods "in the poorest nutritional category."
Still, Kolish says she is proud of what the CFBAI has accomplished (and has refuted the methodology in the 2013 study). She notes that since it launched, cereals and yogurts tend to have less sugar. McDonald’s Happy Meals now include apples and carrots, as well as smaller servings of French fries. At the Barclays Global Consumer Staples conference in September, Mondelez also announced its commitment to focus more on healthy, natural snacks.
Frances Webster, co-founder and chief operating officer of Walrus, a New York agency whose clients include General Mills and Bazooka gum, points out that it’s in brands’ best interest to focus on nutrition. While the U.S. has among the highest rates of obesity in the world, recent food trends have been veering healthier.
"There’s so much pressure about junk food in general that advertisers have to be careful, no matter what medium," Webster said. Marketing unhealthy food "is one other thing people could hold against them."
But Boyland doesn’t think putting advertisers on the honor system is good enough. The Interactive Advertising Bureau, which declined comment, has yet to set any industry standards around food marketing. She believes exactly such standards are necessary.
"I think rather than wait around for the perfect data to come along, if that’s even possible, we need to take a precautionary principle," she said. "We need to regulate on the basis that we’ve already established that food marketing is damaging."