Etmaal van de communicatiewetenschap location:Antwerpen date:02-02-2015
Background: In the EU Pledge, the food industry has vowed to retain from unhealthy food promotion to children under the age of twelve. Nonetheless, food brands increasingly lure children to branded websites packed with unhealthy food and beverage advertising. This study first explores the prevalence of online marketing strategies on 49 Belgian and Dutch child-targeting food websites. Second, it examines the nutrient content of the advertised foods. Third, it scrutinizes whether Belgian and Dutch pledge members’ child-targeting food websites actually abide the EU-pledge. Finally, the findings are compared between the two countries and compared to previous findings.
Method: We selected all child-targeted brands from twelve food categories out of the online shops of a Belgian (Carrefour) and a Dutch (Albert Heijn) supermarket. Googling these brands yielded a list of 49 child-targeting websites with 440 food products. A literature-based coding instrument was developed to identify the presence of online marketing features. The nutritional profile of the 440 food products was calculated using the Nutrient-Profiling Model (UK Food Standards Agency, Lobstein & Davies, 2007, p. 337). Comparisons between the two countries and between pledge (non)-members were analyzed via t-tests and chi-square analyses.
Results: Marketing features were abundantly present on both Belgian and Dutch websites. Brand identifiers, website features and brand benefit claims were the most popular marketing tactics. Remarkably, the nutritional profile of promoted foods and beverages from food brands who signed the pledge did not differ significantly from food brands who didn’t sign a pledge: in both cases the nutrition scores were indicative of extremely unhealthy food. About 88.5% of the online promoted products were unhealthy.
Hence, the brands in our sample failed to meet the pledge’s criteria. Online child protection mechanisms turned out to be nearly nonexistent as well. Only 8.2% of the websites used age-blocks, whereas ad-break reminders were even completely absent. Belgian and Dutch food brands only differed regarding the amount of product-package images and movie tie-ins presented on their websites.
Conclusions: We conclude that the food and beverage companies do not abide their vows: children still have unlimited access to websites promoting unhealthy food. Future studies should examine the possibility of ad-break warnings and counter-advertisements to foster children’s defenses against the online promotion of unhealthy food.