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An epidemic of junk food marketing

Ainslie Sartori, Kelly Kennington and Melissa Ledger write:

We have already seen how the alcohol industry has been able to shift its marketing tactics to focus on the current pandemic at breathtaking speed. The Alcohol Programs Team at Cancer Council WA highlighted in this piece how the alcohol industry is using the COVID-19 crisis to its marketing advantage. Alarmingly, it is working. Alcohol sales are up compared to the same time last year, and one in five people are reporting that their household is purchasing more alcohol than usual since the COVID-19 restrictions were implemented.

Similarly, the junk food and quick service restaurant industries have been quick to capitalise on the pandemic and alter their marketing focus accordingly. The tactic also appears to be working with a recent YouGov survey finding 27 per cent of the 2085 surveyed reported to be eating less healthily than usual. Similar findings are appearing in international studies.

Claw back

Thankfully the usual saturation of junk food marketing associated with large sporting events is missing while national and international sports are on hold or postponed, however the junk food industry is clearly trying to claw back this lost exposure through its advertising to the stay-at-home market.

While we may not be rewarded with a free burger when goals are kicked from outside the 50m line at an AFL game, we are being told we can collect our “essentials” such a bread, milk and eggs from McDonalds.

Far from providing a public service, McDonalds is trying to bring more customers into their drive thrus. It is hard to imagine a customer passing through the McDonalds drive thru to pick up eggs and milk without being asked if they would like fries with that.

McDonald’s have been quick to add more marketing tactics to their armour such as offering free delivery with UberEats. Many quick service restaurants are advertising their cashless and contactless delivery, highlighting their health and safety measures, before advertising their unhealthy food products.

Other quick service restaurants have been quick to adapt their marketing strategies. Subway is promoting having a “sub on your sofa” or a “wrap in your robe”, while Domino’s Australia is promoting  “5 reasons to eat pizza in isolation.” Meanwhile Red Rooster is using the pandemic to have a little fun with the idea of social distancing.

Targeting bored kids is another strategy being employed. Krispy Kreme is promoting doughnuts as a multitasking option while playing computer games, while Skittles is promoting an art competition (using Skittles) to prevent boredom.

Worryingly, a number of the unhealthy food outlets have been offering free drinks or food to healthcare workers, as well as showing healthcare and other essential workers consuming their products in their marketing campaigns.

While the donations of food and beverages to these workers may be seen as providing a much-needed and valued service, it’s hard not to be cynical about such measures, which are also deeply concerning from a health perspective.

Arguably one of the worst examples of this has been Domino’s Australia, which has just launched a new ad featuring its CEO, who states: “We are playing our part to keep Australians safely fed.”

UNICEF, WHO and other organisations have drawn attention to the need for children to continue to receive adequate nutrition from the food they eat and have released a statement on nutrition in the context of COVID-19. The statement (here) outlines the need for children in particular to continue to consume a healthy diet during an emergency situation and calls upon all governments, donors and partners to take action to protect the nutritional status of the most vulnerable families and individuals.

Charitable food organisations have been reporting a bigger than normal demand for food since the health and economic consequences of COVID-19 have begun to impact on Australian families, however continue to receive donations and financial contributions from the unhealthy food industry.

The unhealthy food and quick service restaurant industries no doubt want to ensure their bottom line is not affected by the COVID-19 economic downturn, but the speed with which they have shifted their marketing strategies creates ethical challenges at this time of crisis.

Consumers are a vulnerable and a captive market at the moment due to their enforced isolation, and they should be aware of particular advertising that is targeting their uncertainty, isolation and boredom.

We are being asked to stay home in order to protect our health and that of others in the community. Is the heavy promotion of high-energy dense food with limited nutritional value the type of marketing we need?

Researchers from the UK and the US have revealed that people who are overweight or obese are more at risk of developing severe COVID-19 complications.

While social restrictions seem likely to be in place for some weeks or months to come, Government action to promote the benefits of a healthy diet should be included in its COVID-19 health messaging, and restrictions on this opportunistic marketing should be considered as a matter of urgency.

Ainslie Sartori is the Obesity Policy Coordinator at Cancer Council WA. Ainslie has a background in law and nutrition, and employs both these skills in the obesity prevention context, by looking at regulatory measures to combat the obesity epidemic.

Melissa Ledger is the Director of Cancer Prevention and Research at Cancer Council WA. Melissa has 21 years’ experience in public health and health promotion and has been responsible for leading a number of cancer education and early detection programs and more recently social marketing campaigns on tobacco, alcohol, skin cancer and obesity.

Kelly Kennington is the Obesity Prevention Manager for Cancer Council WA and over the past 20 years has been responsible for managing and leading a range of public health programs. She currently manages a large portfolio of obesity prevention programs including the LiveLighter® TV-led public education program funded by the Department of Health, research, policy development and advocacy work of CCWA and nutrition programs.

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