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Prevention: Marketing to children

Impact of unhealthy food marketing on children

Last updated 17-09-2020

Unhealthy food marketing takes advantage of the developmental vulnerabilities of children and adolescents. Research has shown the effect of various types of unhealthy food marketing on children including advertising on television, digital media content, sports sponsorship, product packaging and collectible toys.

Key Evidence


The average Australian 5 to 8-year-old is exposed to at least 827 unhealthy food advertisements on television each year


Children aged 4 to 6 years believe a product tastes better if it has a cartoon character on the pack


Children aged 10 to 14 years think food and drink sponsors of their local sports clubs are ‘cool’ and like to return the favour by buying their products

Food marketing takes advantage of the developmental vulnerabilities of children and adolescents. When viewing television, for example, children younger than about 5 years are unable to tell the difference between a program and an advertisement. Even older children who can identify advertising lack the cognitive skills and experience to critically interpret marketing messages.1 Adolescent brains are biased towards rewards and they are more likely to respond to cues in the environment, such as marketing.2 When rating the riskiness of everyday situations, young adolescents are heavily influenced by the opinions of their peers, suggesting they place high importance on conformity.3

Unhealthy food marketing targets children as consumers in their own right, and as intermediaries who can influence other consumers, particularly their parents (‘pester power’) and peers.4 Researchers have described a “cascade of effects” in which exposure to unhealthy food marketing influences children’s brand awareness and preferences, and consequent purchases and consumption.56 Studies have shown that exposure to unhealthy food advertisements increases food intake in children.6 For example, an Australian study showed that children aged 7 to 12 years increased food intake following exposure to unhealthy food marketing, and did not compensate for this by reducing food intake at a subsequent meal.7

Television advertising of unhealthy food

Commercial television viewing is independently associated with obesity in children (not just because it is a sedentary activity) and researchers conclude this link is likely due to advertising of unhealthy foods.8 The promotion of unhealthy products not only encourages brand switching within a product category but increases consumption of particular categories of foods including fast food and soft drinks.9 It attracts new customers5 and establishes societal norms around acceptable and desirable foods.10 A study of English children aged 6 to 13 years found that children had a greater preference for high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods (both branded and unbranded) after being exposed to food advertisements, compared to when the same children were shown control advertisements on a separate occasion. The effect was greatest in children who had high regular levels of television viewing.11

Researchers have calculated that the average Australian 5 to 8-year-old, who watches around 80 minutes of television each day, is exposed to at least 827 advertisements or four hours of unhealthy food advertising on television each year.12 An Australian study of children aged 10 to 16 years found exposure to television advertising – not just the amount of time spent watching television – was associated with increased consumption of unhealthy food and drinks. The study found that the link between television viewing and poor diet was strongest for children who watched the most commercial television and were exposed to advertisements at the time of broadcast or did not skip through advertisements in television recordings.13 Australian children with a lower socioeconomic position are more likely to watch television and for longer periods of time than those with a higher socioeconomic position.14

Other marketing of unhealthy food

While television advertising of unhealthy food to children forms a large part of the evidence base for the impact of advertising on children, the effect of other types of marketing has also been studied. Product packaging that includes the presence of cartoon characters has been found to influence taste perceptions in young children. In one US study of children aged 4 to 6 years they believed a product with a cartoon character tasted better than the same food in a package without the character.15 In another US study, children aged 3 to 5 years tasted identical pairs of food and drink but felt they tasted better if they were in McDonald’s branded packaging.16

Collectible toys are another means of altering children’s food preferences, and research has shown they can be used to encourage healthy choices. A US study of children aged 3 to 5 years found a collectible toy increased preference for unhealthy meals, but had the same effect when paired with healthy meals.17 A similar Australian study of 5 to 9-year-olds found children were significantly more likely to select a healthier meal over an unhealthy meal when only the healthier meals were accompanied by a collectible toy.18

Sports sponsorship also has an effect on children’s preferences. An Australian study of 10 to 14-year-olds involved in local sport found high awareness of their clubs’ sponsors, particularly when they were food and beverage companies.19 A majority of children in the study thought their club’s food and beverage sponsors were 'cool', and liked to return the favour to these sponsors by buying their products. Many of the children had received a voucher from a food or beverage company to reward good sport performance (86%), or a sporting certificate displaying a food or beverage company logo (76%).

Online marketing of unhealthy food

The internet is becoming an increasingly important channel for marketing unhealthy food to children and teenagers. On a typical weekday, Australian 15-year-olds spend about two hours online when they are not at school, and a quarter of them are online for more than four hours.20 Research by the Australian Communications and Media Authority involving children aged 8 to 17 found children spend longer periods of time online as they grow older. The internet becomes central to their lives, particularly through social networking sites such as Facebook.21

An analysis of online activities among Australian 14 to 17-year-olds found a growing trend towards streaming of video and audio content.22 Other popular activities included social networking, uploading content such as photos and videos, and playing games online. Unhealthy food marketers can take advantage of these trends to target children and teenagers using digital media in various ways, including through advertisements, product placement and ‘advergames’ created or sponsored by companies to embed products into a game. Marketing on social media encourages teenagers to like and share brand posts with their friends, thereby harnessing the influence of peer networks.23

A recent study of Australian children aged 10 to 16 years found that watching food-branded video content on YouTube and seeing favourite food brands advertised online were significantly associated with higher consumption of unhealthy food and drinks.24 A UK study found an increased intake of unhealthy snacks among children who viewed images of social media ‘influencers’ with unhealthy snacks on Instagram, compared to children who had viewed images of influencers with healthy snacks or non-food products.25

A US study found that playing food-branded ‘advergames’ increased children’s consumption of unhealthy snack foods, compared to playing advergames featuring healthy foods and non-food advergames.26 Within advergames, the technique of ‘rewarded video advertising’ in which players are shown an ad before progressing to a new level has been shown to be particularly effective. An Australian study of children aged 7 to 12 found that children exposed to rewarded video advertising within an advergame chose the promoted brand significantly more than children in other arms of the study, when offered a choice of snacks afterwards.27 Children exposed to the rewarded video advertising were far more likely to choose the promoted brand even compared to children who played an advergame with the promoted brand included as high-value game pieces, highlighting the sophisticated nature of advertising techniques being used to market unhealthy food to children online.


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