New WHO Guidelines on Food Marketing to Children

In its recent announcement, the World Health Organization (WHO) made clear the role marketers must play in promoting a healthier future for our children. Calling for stronger regulations to protect children from the detrimental impact of food marketing, the WHO has given marketers a definitive call to action. The implications of this directive are enormous, requiring a fundamental shift in marketing strategies targeting children.

The marketing of foods high in saturated and trans-fatty acids, free sugars, and/or salt (HFSS) has long been a contentious issue. Evidence has shown that such advertising can manipulate children’s food choices, encouraging consumption of unhealthy foods, and setting a course for future health problems like obesity and heart disease.

“Aggressive and pervasive marketing of foods and beverages high in fats, sugars and salt to children is responsible for unhealthy dietary choices,” says Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the Department of Nutrition and Food Safety of WHO. “Calls to responsible marketing practices have not had a meaningful impact. Governments should establish strong and comprehensive regulations.”

The WHO’s new guidelines advocate for mandatory regulation on the marketing of HFSS foods and non-alcoholic beverages, highlighting that previous voluntary measures have fallen short. This transition to mandatory rules signals an urgent call for marketers to reassess their strategies and consider the impact their work has on public health.

In particular, the guidelines discourage tactics that exploit children’s vulnerabilities, such as using cartoons, toy giveaways, catchy jingles, and celebrity endorsements. This would require marketers to be more innovative and ethical in their approach.

The guidelines also suggest using a government-led nutrient profile model to classify foods that should be restricted from marketing. This is an opportunity for marketers to align themselves with these standards.

Roadblocks to come up with new strategies

Undoubtedly, some may perceive these changes imposed by the WHO guidelines as restricting or limiting, particularly as it curtails familiar marketing tactics like the use of cartoons, celebrity endorsements, and offering toys that have been traditionally used to appeal to children. These restrictions could initially be viewed as roadblocks, making it challenging for marketers to connect with their young audience in ways they’ve been accustomed to.

However, these limitations should not be seen as mere hindrances. Rather, they allow marketers to rethink and evolve their strategies, pushing the boundaries of creativity and innovation. This reimagining of marketing strategies presents an immense opportunity for growth and transformation within the industry.

Consider this: the field is now wide open for marketing campaigns that can effectively balance the dual objectives of driving company growth and contributing positively to public health. It’s an invitation to create marketing that appeals not only to children, but also to their parents and caregivers, emphasizing the nutritional value and health benefits of food products, instead of relying on mere gimmicks.

Moreover, the shift also encourages the industry to develop healthier alternatives and market them in an appealing, persuasive manner. It fosters an environment of competition not just in terms of branding and sales, but also in creating the healthiest, most beneficial products for our children.

Does the marketing industry need to have an active role in the well-being of children?

Many argue that the primary role of the marketing industry is to promote products and drive sales. From this perspective, the well-being of children is seen as a responsibility of parents, caregivers, educators, and public health authorities rather than marketers. It’s argued that it’s up to these figures to guide children towards healthy choices and educate them about the potential impacts of their decisions. However, there is an increasing consumer demand for brands to act responsibly and contribute positively to societal well-being.

In a larger sense, these guidelines compel the marketing industry to take up an active role in the health and well-being of children, an impact that extends far beyond the immediate business objectives. It opens a new avenue where marketers are not just promoters of products, but also contributors to the larger societal goal of nurturing healthier generations.

So, while the path may seem laden with limitations at the outset, it is, in reality, a pathway to broader horizons. It challenges the industry to push beyond its comfort zone, to create marketing campaigns that contribute positively to children’s health, and to explore how business growth can be achieved alongside promoting public well-being.

A complete shift in marketing food products to children?

Compliance with the new WHO guidelines presents an opportunity for marketing managers to innovate and market their food products more ethically. A range of strategies can be employed, many of which hinge on businesses being open to developing and introducing healthier alternatives to their current offerings. Let’s explore some of these possibilities.

  1. Focus on Nutritional Benefits: Make the nutritional value of your products a selling point. Highlight the healthy ingredients in your product and emphasize their benefits. If needed, reformulate products to increase their nutritional value.
  2. Market to Parents: Instead of targeting children directly, shift your marketing focus towards parents, who are typically the decision-makers when it comes to purchasing food products. Educate them about the nutritional benefits of your products and how they can contribute to a balanced diet.
  3. Promote Healthy Lifestyles: Instead of just marketing a product, market a lifestyle. Create campaigns that encourage physical activity, balanced eating habits, and overall well-being. This approach promotes your brand as one that cares about its consumers’ health.
  4. Develop Healthier Alternatives: If you’re marketing HFSS products, consider developing healthier alternatives to offer consumers. This not only provides consumers with more choices but also broadens your target market to include health-conscious consumers.
  5. Transparency and Education: Be transparent about your product’s nutritional content and educate consumers on how your product fits into a healthy diet. This can build trust with consumers and help them make informed decisions.