How does unhealthy advertising impact on children's eating habits?

Comida saludable

Alexandra Theben
Tenure Track Professor
Lecturer of the Executive MBA


Past month, Save the Children published the results of a comparative analysis of the National Health Survey conducted in Spain in 2017 (ENSE), surveying more than 2,000 parents to understand the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on the nutrition and health of children in Spain. The research showed that almost 28.1% of those under 18 years of age will be overweight in Spain after the COVID-19 pandemic, a slight increase to pre-pandemic times (27.2%). This situation is likely to be aggravated by the increase in the price of vegetables and fruits - a result of the recent inflation.

28.1% of children in Spain will be overweight after the pandemic, a situation that will be aggravated by the increase in the price of vegetables and fruit as a result of the recent inflation

Research suggests that the main determinants of obesity and overweight in childhood are the quality of their diet, the level of physical activity, the number of hours spent sleeping or in front of a screen, as well as environmental, cultural and biological factors. Also, socioeconomic status determines the nutritional health of children and their healthy habits.

In numbers, this translates into the fact that 18.1% of children from households with lower incomes consume sweets daily compared to 10% of children from well-off families; more than 71% of high-income households practice physical activities or sports regularly, but only 41% of low-income households do so. In most cases, children from poor households do not engage in physical activity at all or only occasionally.

Harmful impact of online marketing

However, also the omnipresence of marketing of pre-dominantly unhealthy (so called HFSS – high fat, salt and sugar) products plays an important part. In fact, in many countries the media environment is held accountable for rising obesity rates among children, including Spain.

Children represent a huge market for advertisers. Therefore, marketing of pre-dominantly unhealthy products plays an important part in their health

Children represent a huge market for advertisers. In addition to the purchasing spend they represent and the influence they exert on their parents’ shopping decisions, children who have not yet formed their tastes, desires and preferences become an ultimate target for advertisers and remain as such throughout adulthood. In the last years, marketers increasingly moved to online environments and adopted ever more sophisticated marketing techniques to target children, including marketing via games played online.

Covid-19 led to higher screentime among young people

Especially young people nowadays spend much leisure time using a variety of electronic media, often at the cost of physical activity. With school closures and self-isolation measures in place due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many children were spending even more time online than usual. During this screentime, they were likely to be exposed problematic marketing practices, which are not always understood by the child consumer.

"In an era of diverse marketing and advertising platforms, entertainment and modern culture, children from all over the world are exposed to a great number of marketing and advertise activities", says International Chamber of Commerce.

Online marketing targeting children and young people has been studied from a variety of angles and perspectives, which demonstrates its societal relevance. Overall, current online advertising practices targeting children have raised multiple concerns about potential negative effects on vulnerable young consumers. This is, in part, due to the use of digital media exposing young people to online brand promotions that do not look like typical advertising. A specific form of online marketing is advergames, which are free online games that integrate advertising stimuli, such as messages, logos, and trade characters. The issue was investigated in-depth in a study for the European Commission in 2016, which brought new evidence on unfair marketing practices directed at child consumers, informed the revision of the UCPD Guidance and the review of EU consumer and marketing law.

An experiment to test an online advergame promoting fruit

Academics have investigated the effects of novel marketing techniques such as advergames for different food products on children’s subsequent food intake, but only a few have tested the effects for healthy food products. It was therefore worth investigating whether advergames as a marketing technique can be used in similar ways as they are used for the promotion of predominantly HFSS products to promote healthy food products.

Within this context, we carried out the research "Playing with fruit: An experimental study to test the effectiveness of an online memory advergame to promote children's fruit consumption". The design of the experiment in this study was driven by an empirically based assumption building on previous research, namely that the effectiveness of current food marketing techniques such as advergames could also be used for the marketing of healthy food products such as fruit. 

Childhood obesity continues to be a major problem in our society. The marketing energy-dense, nutrient poor foods and beverage remains omnipresent

Although the study showed that advergames cannot “just as easily” be used to promote healthier foods, its relevance of this type of studies is beyond doubt, demonstrating that more research is needed to test whether other marketing forms are more effective to encourage the intake of healthier foods.

Children obesity continues to be a major problem in our current society. The marketing of energy-dense, nutrient poor foods and beverages remains omnipresent but is a key modifiable factor influencing children's dietary patterns. 

Ways forward

Children today enjoy wide access to technology and marketing communications, and it is evident that children are increasingly media literate. Due to their vulnerability, inexperience and lack of ability to critically reflect on the received information, advertisers should be especially diligent in protecting these young consumers from harmful and deceptive information and content.

A key question that remains, however, is how to reach a balance between legislative regulation and self-regulation by the industry to ensure adequate protection for children. Self-regulatory efforts lack the ability to enforce ethical standards and behaviour without a credible threat of government regulation. At the same time, policy makers refrain from regulating online business too much to allow for innovation.

In Spain, however, the Ministry of Consumer Affairs will prohibit the advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages (including chocolates, sweets, cookies, desserts, juices and ice cream) aimed at children and adolescents on television, radio, social networks, websites, applications, cinema and newspapers. Apart from more stringent regulation, moving forward requires a holistic approach to encourage healthy food intake: limiting children’s exposure to marketing practices, educational efforts and interventions, as well as presenting children with healthy food options on a daily basis.