Many children in the Asia-Pacific region have been confined to their homes amid lockdowns linked to COVID-19 since the pandemic struck last year, and throughout that time they have increasingly been turned to their mobile devices and other digital devices for entertainment to fill the time they have. would normally spend on school or activities.
This has made them more likely to come across online advertisements for unhealthy foods, which are currently unregulated in most countries.
“There is evidence that food companies have increased their marketing since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic – particularly through online channels,”The WHO Collaborating Center for the Prevention of Obesity at Deakin University, Principal Investigator, Associate Professor Gary Sacks said FoodNavigator-Asia.
“On top of that, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, children are spending more and more time online and on their devices – [so] we know they are highly exposed to online junk food ads.
“The high levels of exposure of children to the marketing of unhealthy foods and brands is a major public health problem,” [and whilst] everyone is always adjusting to new ways of living, working and parenting since the COVID-19 hit, we need to make sure that the changes that have occurred will not have serious health consequences long term, including poor eating habits. “
Citing Australia as an example, Professor Sacks pointed out that local food companies have been ‘non-stop’market their products and brands during the pandemic, using COVID-19-related themes, such as isolation activities and community support, as part of their marketing campaigns on social media platforms.
“The high levels of [consumer] exposure to the marketing of unhealthy food products and brands contributes to the poor state of our diet at the population level, [even in] a developed nation like Australia ”,he said.
“As we reflect on ways to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to make sure that the environment we live in does not cause us to overeat unhealthy food. [and to] ensure that children are also protected.
National University of Singapore public health researcher Salome Antonette Rebello previously told us that measures to strengthen the governance of online unhealthy food advertising are even more important when it comes to countries heavily reliant on digital media, such as Singapore.
“An upcoming study we are finalizing has shown that food marketed on social media spaces in Singapore tends to be unhealthy – on the social media pages of 15 major F&B companies nationwide, only 13% of products presented were staple foods such as fruits or vegetables. The vast majority were either non-essential foods (58%) such as sugary snacks or sugary drinks, or mixed dishes (29%) such as burgers or fried chicken ”,she says.
“There are already local bans restricting the marketing of sugary drinks – and it would be a logical next step to extend that to all unhealthy food products.”
Online is where the advertising action is
A global study by the Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) Alliance claimed that food companies had “Quickly adapted their marketing efforts to refer to the health and social concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic”, And that many of them were focused on online platforms.
“We observed two trends [since the start of the pandemic]: The growing epidemiological evidence that people living with noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are suffering worse consequences from COVID-19, and that many producers of unhealthy products have quickly adapted their strategies to try to take advantage of the pandemic and lockdowns “,said Lucy Westerman, NCD Alliance policy and campaign manager and co-author of the study.
“There have also been clear signs that the response to COVID-19 is accelerating marketing trends around digitization, live streaming, e-commerce and the increasing availability of products through new online platforms. “
In New Zealand, researchers at the University of Auckland recently published research regarding their findings on ‘COVID washing’ by F&B companies, which essentially means hijacking the COVID-19 pandemic to promote their products “unhealthy” food and drink while consumers are stressed and vulnerable to such marketing.
This sparked strong protests from the local food industry, pointing out that the messages used as examples of COVID washing by researchers were in fact motivational messages containing encouraging messages as opposed to promotional advertisements.
“If the researchers had pasted the examples of social media posts, most readers would have concluded that these were positive posts reflecting a difficult time for everyone and certainly not campaigns.New Zealand Food and Grocery Council (NZFGC) CEO Katherine Rich told us.
“Even the term ‘COVID-wash’, which researchers have given a specific definition, is an emotional word and not an objective academic term.
“Most promotions and campaigns were actually canceled during our COVID lockdown – COVID-related communications gathered by researchers [were] Usually posts of goodwill and support on social media and weren’t promotions or campaigns at all.
Beverage giant Coca-Cola has also emphasized that not all of its advertisements and campaigns are aimed at children, providing consumers with reassurance that this is a “Leader in responsible marketing practices in the presence of children”.
“At Coca-Cola, we take our advertising and marketing responsibilities seriously, and we do not directly advertise to children under the age of 12.the firm said in an official statement.
“We are not directly targeting [this group] in any media for any brand message, show [this group] consume our drinks without the presence of a parent or guardian in advertising or promotional material, direct sampling events [to them] or promote our brands [to them] in schools.”
Regulation, the only way to change
Despite these assurances, Professor Sacks is still not convinced and calls for regulatory action to initiate “real” change before it is too late to prevent the spread of NCDs among the next generation.
“We need higher standards for the types of ads our children are exposed to when they are online,”he said.
“We know that [this] marketing works – that’s why food companies have such high marketing budgets – and high levels of marketing for unhealthy food during the COVID-19 pandemic likely contributed to the unhealthy state of people’s diets [which] will continue with our children if nothing is done.
“Obesity is associated with poorer health outcomes, including a higher risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19, and that is why we need urgent action. This includes higher standards for the way food is marketed, including comprehensive regulations to restrict the marketing of unhealthy food, [including] what children are exposed to online.