Exposure and power of food marketing and their associations with food-related attitudes, beliefs and behaviors: a narrative review

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Overview

This report presents the results of a narrative review conducted to update an earlier descriptive review published by WHO in 2009 on the extent, nature and effects of food marketing. The current review was commissioned by the Subgroup on Policy Actions of the WHO Nutrition Guidance Expert Advisory Group (NUGAG) as part of the evidence reviews to inform its formulation of an updated guideline report on policies to protect children from the harmful effects of food marketing.

The review included 143 content analysis studies (studies that look at where food marketing happens, how much there is, for which brands/products and what creative content and marketing techniques are used) and 36 research studies on consumers (studies that explore individuals’ beliefs, attitudes, perceptions and behavioral responses to food marketing) published between 2009 and 2020. According to content analysis studies, food marketing remains prevalent, including in places where children congregate and during children’s television programs and viewing times. Food marketing primarily promotes foods that contribute to unhealthy diets (such as “fast food”, sugary drinks, chocolate and confectionery) and uses a wide range of creative strategies that may appeal to young audiences (such as mentions of celebrities/sports, promotional characters and games). Findings from consumer research studies included positive associations between frequency or level of exposure to food marketing and habitual consumption of marketed foods or less healthy foods.

This review extends the findings of the 2009 WHO review by adding evidence and insights into more contemporary types of marketing, reflecting the growth in internet use and food marketing through digital and social media in the course of the last decade. It confirms that the marketing of foods that contribute to unhealthy diets remains pervasive and compelling and provides evidence that strengthens the case for action to restrict the marketing of foods to which children are exposed.

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