Junk Food Marketing to Children: Closing the Loopholes

Junk Food Marketing to Children: Closing the Loopholes

In this guest blog, Caroline Cerny, Alliance lead at the Obesity Health Alliance, discusses some of the issues around junk food marketing to children, why current policy is not protecting our children and young people from commercial interests and how football is exploited by brands promoting unhealthy products.

There is a wealth of evidence proving that seeing adverts for junk food influences children’s food choices and how much they eat. So when children are routinely exposed to junk food marketing not only on TV and online, but outside their schools and at both junior level and professional football clubs, it’s clear we need effective restrictions to protect children and help them grow up healthy.

Recent studies by Cancer Research UK found that junk food advertising on TV is a clear, consistent and cumulative risk factor for high junk food consumption and increased weight amongst young people. Being bombarded by TV ads for unhealthy, high calorie food could lead teens to eat more than 500 extra snacks like crisps, biscuits and fizzy drinks throughout the course of a single year compared to those who watch less TV. The likelihood of a young person being obese more than doubles when they can recall seeing unhealthy food and drink adverts on television every day.

Our current regulations, designed to ‘protect’ children from seeing influential unhealthy food and drink adverts are full of loopholes. The rules cover TV, online, outdoor adverts, radio and cinema. But the restrictions only apply when a TV programme, film or website is deemed ‘of particular appeal’ to children.

This means media which is popular with both adults and children does not meet the threshold. Imagine a YouTube video which may be watched by 20 million viewers. As long as 15 million of them are adults, five million children also watching could be seeing adverts for junk food. On TV, the rules only cover 26% of children’s viewing time. In 2017 the Obesity Health Alliance analysed the number of junk food adverts seen by children when watching their favourite programmes shown between 6-9pm when the number of child viewers peaks. We found that 60% of food and drinks adverts shown during these programmes are for food products high in fat, sugar and salt (known as HFSS) and children can see up to nine HFSS adverts during one 30 minute TV programme.

In recognition of these loopholes, the Government made a commitment in chapter 2 of its childhood obesity plan to bring in a 9pm watershed on junk food adverts on TV, with similar restrictions online. If implemented fully, this will provide important protection to children and be a vital step in curbing children’s exposure.

However, serious loopholes will still remain. The current rules exclude free giveaways and event or sport sponsorship at national and local level, meaning chocolate companies can sponsor the Premier League and fast food companies can sponsor grassroots and community football programmes, some of which are specifically run for children. Crucially, they do not cover packaging, meaning child-friendly characters and figures can be used on packets of sweets, crisps and sugary cereals.

Advertising works. That’s why food companies invest millions every year, to persuade us to buy and eat their products. If we want the next generation to grow up healthy, we need a comprehensive approach to regulation that covers the myriad of innovative ways of marketing unhealthy food and drinks.

Obesity Health Alliance

Caroline is the Alliance Lead at the Obesity Health Alliance, a 44 strong coalition of national health charities, medical royal colleges and campaign groups. Formed in 2015, the Obesity Health Alliance work together to influence Government obesity policy, working together on coordinated policy development, public affairs and communication activity.

Just before joining the Obesity Health Alliance Caroline spent six months seconded into the Department of Health’s strategic communications team working on childhood obesity and other public health issues. Caroline also spent 8 years working at Cancer Research UK delivering health campaigns on early diagnosis, cancer screening, tobacco and sun safety.

Michael Viggars

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