A new study conducted by Cancer Research UK has provided policymakers with some food for thought after quantifying the true reach of junk food adverts among teen audiences across social media and streaming platforms as well as celebrities and influencers.
The pervasive accompaniment to digital life extends to the real world too with TV, radio, print and billboards all amplifying the unhealthy messaging, fueling arguments for a proposed blanket ban on all foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.
Increased exposure to unhealthy food on social media
The study, conducted before lockdown, asked 3,394 young people aged between 11 and 19 if they had been exposed to any form of junk food advertising over the past month to derive its conclusions.
The results were illuminating with 88% having seen some form of junk food special offer while 86% had seen a fast food advert on social media, principally through platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat and Twitter.
Fractionally fewer (84%) witnessed a junk food ad on TV and 82% noticed a delicious distraction on billboards as they went about their business. A further 72% were tempted after clocking celebrities with an unhealthy snack in hand whether that be in film, music or TV.
Further down the food chain 68% cited having seen such advertising on catch-up and streaming services and a further 64% witnessed influencers peddling artery-clogging finger food. At the lowest end of the scale, 57% observed direct appeals to the stomach in newspapers and magazines.
Most worryingly Cancer Research UK identified a direct correlation between exposure to junk food marketing and consumption of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt.
It is speculated that these indicators may now be even worse than feared as children cooped up at home devour greater quantities of online media, raising their risk profile in the process.
The long term implications of an unhealthy diet are clear with obese children some five times more likely to remain overweight in adulthood, increasing the risk of cancer.
‘Rich pickings’ for junk food brands
Elucidating upon the findings Malcolm Clark, Cancer Research UK’s senior policy manager, commented: “Digital platforms provide rich pickings for junk food brands looking for extra opportunities to tempt tech-savvy teenagers with their products. An end to online advertising of junk food would be a world-leading protective measure for young people’s health and wellbeing and reduce their risk of developing diet-related diseases, including cancer, later in life."
Calling for regulatory action to turn the situation around Clark adds: “Turning the tap off the swathe of junk food adverts bombarding young people would help the UK Government reach its ambition of halving childhood obesity by 2030. It must follow through on its robust proposals and introduce legislation to restrict junk food marketing and promotions to protect the health of future generations.”
Any such move is destined to meet fierce resistance from food and drink manufacturers, who have already stated their implacable opposition to any blanket ban to prime minister Boris Johnson.
The Covid-19 outbreak has amplified calls for action following the discovery of a link between weight and your susceptibility to developing complications from the virus.
Amid heightened public awareness and concern over the issue, The Drum convened a passionate debate over the merits or otherwise of a ban, attended by the IAB, Advertising Association and Action on Sugar.
A backlash has been brewing among advertisers slamming the 'severe and disproportionate' ramifications of a draconian move.