Many children throughout the Asia Pacific region have been confined to their homes as part of COVID-19 related lockdowns since the pandemic hit last year, and throughout this time have increasingly turned to their mobile and other digital devices for entertainment to fill up the time they would normally spend at school or activities.
This has resulted in them becoming more likely to come across unhealthy food advertisements online, which are currently not regulated 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,” WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University Senior Research Fellow Associate Professor Gary Sacks told FoodNavigator-Asia.
“In addition to this, since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, children are spending more and more time online and on their devices – [so] we know that they are heavily exposed to junk food ads online.
“The high levels of exposure of children to marketing of unhealthy foods and brands is a major public health concern, [and whilst] everyone is still adjusting to new ways of living, working and parenting since COVID-19 hit, we need to ensure that the changes that have occurred aren’t going to have serious long-term health implications, including poor dietary habits.”
Citing Australia as an example, Prof Sacks highlighted that local food firms had been ‘incessantly’ marketing their products and brands during the pandemic, utilising themes related to COVID-19, such as isolation activities and community support, as part of their marketing campaigns on social media platforms.
“The high levels of [consumer] exposure to marketing for unhealthy food products and brands contributes to the poor state of our diets at the population level, [even in] a developed nation such as Australia,” he said.
“As we think about ways to build back from the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to ensure that the environment we live in doesn’t push us to overconsume unhealthy food [and to] ensure that children are protected from this too.”
National University of Singapore public health researcher Salome Antonette Rebello previously told us that measures to strengthen online advertising governance of unhealthy foods are of even more importance when it comes to countries highly dependent on digital media, such as Singapore.
“An upcoming study we are finalising has shown that foods marketed on social media spaces in Singapore tend to be unhealthy – on the social media pages of 15 top F&B companies in the country, just 13% of featured products were core foods such as fruits or vegetables. The vast majority were either non-core foods (58%) such as sweet snacks or sugary drinks, or mixed dishes (29%) such as burgers or fried chicken,” she said.
“There are already local bans in place restricting the marketing of sugar-sweetened beverages – and it would be a logical next step to expand this to all unhealthy food products.”
Online is where the advertising action is
A global study conducted by the Non-Communicable Disease (NCD) Alliance claimed that food companies had ‘rapidly adapted their marketing efforts to reference health and social concerns associated with the COVID-19 pandemic’, and that many of these were focused at online platforms.
“We have observed two trends [since the start of the pandemic]: the growing epidemiological evidence that people living with noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) are suffering worse outcomes from COVID-19, and that many producers of unhealthy commodities have rapidly adapted their strategies in an attempt to capitalise on the pandemic and lockdowns,” said NCD Alliance Policy and Campaigns Manager and study co-author Lucy Westerman.
“There have also been clear signs that the response to COVID-19 is accelerating trends in marketing around digitisation, livestreaming, e-commerce and increasing availability of products via new online platforms.”
In New Zealand, researchers from the University of Auckland recently published research regarding their discoveries on ‘COVID-washing’ by F&B firms, which essentially means the misappropriation of the COVID-19 pandemic to promote their ‘unhealthy’ food and beverage products whilst consumers are stressed and vulnerable to such marketing.
This drew strong protests from the local food industry, highlighting that various posts used as examples of COVID-washing by the researchers were in fact motivational posts containing encouraging messages as opposed to promotional advertisements.
“Had the researchers pasted up the examples of the social media posts most readers would conclude they were positive messages reflecting a difficult time for everyone and certainly not campaigns,” New Zealand Food and Grocery Council (NZFGC) Chief Executive Katherine Rich told us.
“Even the term ‘COVID-washing’, which the researchers gave a specific definition, is an emotive word and not an objective academic term.
“Most promotions and campaigns [by our member companies] were actually cancelled during our COVID lockdown - The COVID-related communications collated by the researchers [were] generally social media posts of goodwill and support and were not promotions or campaigns at all.”
Beverage giant Coca-Cola has also stressed that all of its advertisements and campaigns are not directed at children, ensuring consumers that it is a ‘leader in the area of responsible marketing practices when children are present’.
“At Coca-Cola, we take our responsibilities seriously regarding advertising and marketing, and we do not directly advertise to children under the age of 12,” said the firm in a formal statement.
“We do not directly target [this group] in any media for any brand messaging, show [this group] consuming our beverages without the presence of a parent or caretaker in advertising or promotional materials, direct sampling events [to them] or promote our brands [to them] in schools.”
Regulations the only way to change
Despite these reassurances, Prof Sacks remains unconvinced, and is calling for regulatory action to initiate ‘real’ change before it is too late to prevent NCDs spreading amongst the next generation.
“We need higher standards for the types of ads that our kids are exposed to when they’re online,” he said.
“We know that [this] marketing works – that’s why food companies have such high marketing budgets – and the high levels of marketing for unhealthy food during the COVID-19 pandemic has probably contributed to the unhealthy state of population diets [which] will continue on with our kids if nothing is done.
“Obesity is associated with worse health outcomes, including a higher risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19, and that’s why we need urgent action. This includes higher standards for the way food is marketed, including comprehensive regulations to restrict unhealthy food marketing, [including] what children are exposed to online.”