New WHO guidelines encourage marketers to consider their impact

Aug 8th, 2023

Children are an interesting market because although they do not pull the purse strings, they are a highly influential aspect of the buyer journey for their parents or guardians. While businesses need to be able to market their products in order to stay afloat – when it comes to marketing to children, is there a line we shouldn’t cross?

The ethical implications of marketing to children have been discussed at length recently, particularly in relation to the food and beverage market. Recent research has found that products that could be classified as ‘most appealing to children’ from a marketing perspective, were also more often than not those that contained higher levels of sugar or unhealthy fats, and lower levels of ‘all other nutrients’. Further research in the field gives us reason to believe that higher levels of exposure to the marketing of these products, correlates with more frequent product consumption – consequently leading to children with unhealthy diets and contributing to a wide array of health problems later in life.

As marketers, we need to consider the impact of marketing unhealthy foods to children – not just in terms of moral responsibility, but also how our businesses could be perceived if seen promoting unhealthy ideas to such an impressionable audience.

Last month, the World Health Organisation (WHO) released a new set of stricter guidelines for marketing unhealthy foods to children. The new WHO guidance recommends that:

Countries [should] implement comprehensive mandatory policies to protect children of all ages from the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages that are high in saturated fatty acids, trans-fatty acids, free sugars and/or salt (also known as the HFSS food group).

In May 2023, Food and beverage giant Nestle received backlash for the way they advertised their new cereal; akin to their famous ‘KitKat’ chocolate bar, Nestle launched a new cereal targeted to the younger audience that claimed the following:

“as well as being oh-so chocolatey and tasty, these crunchy cereals are also made with whole grain and are a source of vitamins and minerals. What’s more, they are made using sustainably sourced cocoa.”

On further inspection of the cereal, a 30g bowl (Nestle’s recommended portion size) contains 30% of the daily recommended amount of sugar for kids 7 years of age, and 40% for 6 years olds. Considering most children, when serving themselves, eat more than the recommended amount of cereal, children are quite easily and frequently consuming their daily intake of sugar before 9am.

Several food organisations collaborated to write a letter to the CEO of Nestle UK and Ireland that addressed their concerns with Nestle’s ‘irresponsible’ marketing of their new product. Within the letter they stated that not only were the statements implying the nutritious value of the product inaccurate, they were also in complete violation and in contrast to their own mission statement (UK).

“We are the Good food, Good life company. We believe in the power of food to enhance lives. Good food nourishes and delights the senses. It helps children grow healthy, pets thrive, parents age gracefully and everyone lives life to the fullest. Good food brings us together. Good food also respects our planet and protects resources for future generations.”

Taking this into consideration, what can food and beverage companies learn from Nestle’s mistakes? Advertising unhealthy products in a way that makes them sound nutritious, is not only unethical and morally wrong, but can spark bad press, and have a negative impact on your brands reputation and image.

Prior to WHOs update to their guidelines earlier this month, advocating for stricter policies for marketing unhealthy food to children, some countries have already put such bans in place and have seen some promising results.


Starting in 2016, Chile introduced the first phase of their multi-phased regulations in food labelling and advertising. This was a ban on advertising any products that were high in sugars, saturated fats, sodium and energy – or otherwise deemed unhealthy – to children under the age of 14 years. This included placing such marketing material in areas that were intended for children (e.g. children’s TV programmes), or where more than 20% of the audience was under the age of 14 years old.

As a result of this ban, there was a 73% drop in exposure to unhealthy food and drink advertisements for under 14s.


Transport for London also put in place a similar ban in 2019, prohibiting the advertising of HFSS foods on their network, including underground tubes, bus stops, and railway stations.

In the 10 months following the introduction of the ban:

Households were making purchases that had on average 7% less energy from unhealthy products (or 1000kcal lower) per week, than what was predicted.

Weekly household purchases were being reduced on average by:

  • 57.9g fat
  • 26.4g saturated fat
  • 80.7g sugar

During this time there were no changes seen in the purchase patterns for non-HFSS products.

Times are changing. We are becoming a more body positive and health conscious society. Our marketing practices need to reflect these changes, not just because it is ethically and morally right to do so, but also because our brand’s reputation and image will suffer if we do not.

Everyone has the responsibility to ensure that children have the best start in life, and that includes altering our marketing practices to encourage a healthier lifestyle from a young age.

The world of marketing is always changing; marketers need to use their naturally creative ways to help them adapt to these changes, and take comfort in the knowledge that although it might mean a lot work in the short term, in the long term we are helping shape a better and healthier society for our children, grandchildren, and the future generations to come.

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