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Challenging the role of influencers in junk food marketing

Growing up, my favourite soft drink was orange fizzy.

But when Brittany Spears started dancing and singing across television sets drinking Pepsi, my views changed. The popstar had signed a lucrative contract with the drinks and snacks maker to become an official spokesperson.

The next time I was stood in front of the milk bar fridge, I chose Pepsi.

Spears was ‘influencing’ ahead of the social media age, and other 14-year-olds around me were lapping it up. I didn’t stay on the Pepsi bandwagon for long (my loyalties lay with a bright orange competitor), but PepsiCo’s signing of Spears had prompted me, and no doubt many others, to make that all-important first purchase.

Fast-forward a couple of decades and not a whole lot has changed in soft drink and junk food marketing. Yes, these days advertising dollars are largely spent on social media channels rather than print and television, but it is still ‘influencers’ – whether that be popstars, famous sportspeople, Hollywood celebrities or social media sensations – promoting these products.

Given rising obesity levels and increased regulatory pressure to reduce consumer intake of ‘unhealthy’ food and drink, this must change.

Spain recently announced plans to combat influencers’, well…influence, over younger generations when it comes to HFSS products. The world would do well to listen.

Spain tackles overweight and obesity

Spain is proposing to ban influencers, famous sportspeople and television presenters from advertising food or drink that is high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) to children.

A draft decree, published by Spain’s consumer affairs ministry and translated by The Guardian​, said: “The ban would prohibit appearances in commercial communications by parents, educators, teachers, children’s TV professionals, sportspeople, artists, influencers, and people or characters – be they real or fictional – why may, by dint of their careers, be likely to represent a model or example for these minors.”

An influencer, in this context, describes a person with a ‘high level of influence over children and young people’ because of their ‘large number of followers’ on social or digital media, and who interacts through messages on networks, blogs, posts, videos or similar media.

The crackdown on junk food advertising aimed at children comes as many European countries grapple with obesity rates.

According to a 2020 study published in the Revista Española de Cardiología, ​some 34% of the Spanish population aged between 3 and 24 years is overweight or obese. This figure rises to almost 40% in the case of children between 3 and 8 years old.

Today, 15% of Spanish children are obese. To provide some context, back in 1984 childhood obesity levels were at 3%.

This public health problem is not unique to Spain. Indeed, surrounding Mediterranean countries are also struggling with obesity and overweight amongst their younger populations, and across the Channel the UK is no different: according to government figures, 9.9% of children aged 4-5 years are obese, with a further 13.1% overweight. At age 10-11 years, 21% are obese and 14.1% overweight.

Globally, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, with over 340m children and adolescents aged 5-19 either overweight or obese in 2016. Thirty-nine million children under the age of 5 were overweight or obese in 2020.

Many steps in the right direction

Spain’s recent proposal, which has yet to be made law, is far from the first tabled action designed to reduce obesity rates. Across Europe, different Member States have laid out voluntary or mandatory measures, as have nations further afield.

Late last year, for example, Spain’s consumer affairs minister said he planned to ban advertisements for unhealthy foods that target younger audiences across a variety of media channels.

In neighbouring France, advertising restrictions are also in place, as are taxes on sugary drinks. In Germany, too, the advertising industry has tightened its voluntary rules of conduct for food advertising aimed at children. The commitment applies to TV, radio, print and digital communications, and covers ‘cooperation with influencers’, social networks, and advertising on video platforms.

And in the UK, food makers are preparing for new HFSS rules, which will see media and promotional restrictions applies to ‘unhealthy products’. The legislation also prohibits the marketing of such products on TV (pre-9pm) and online.

These initiatives are all steps in the right direction. And yet, sportspeople, famous actors, models and influencers – many of whom are popular amongst children – continue to get behind HFSS brands.

Influencing for health

Why is this the case? We’d likely have to scrutinise celebrities’ bank balances to find out.

While details on payments to influencers are rarely disclosed, it was reported Spears received $8m back in 2001 as a PepsiCo spokesperson.

Brands pay top dollar for advertising, as suggested by a 2017 analysis published in the British Medical Journal​. According to its findings, spending on junk food advertising is nearly 30 times what governments spend on promoting healthy eating.

This is where regulation can come into play. And indeed, Spain is on the right track. Aside from proposing to ban high-profile influencers, sportspeople, and television presenters from advertising HFSS food and drink, its decree said that those popular amongst children would be encouraged to promote ‘physical activity and health, sustainable and responsible eating habits’.

Addressing the imbalance between ‘unhealthy’ and ‘healthy’ advertising, and ensuring we are hyper-aware of how much influence some celebrities have over kids’ lifestyle choices, is the way forward.

Spain’s proposal is an example of the progressive action required across the globe.