Establishing methods to monitor digital marketing to children

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research in collaboration with Health Canada


On November 8, 2018, CIHR hosted a Best Brains Exchange (BBE) on the topic of Establishing methods to monitor digital marketing to childrenin collaboration with Health Canada.
The BBE was designed to address the following policy questions:

  1. How can the government monitor digital marketing on unhealthy foods and beverages to children?
  2. How can existing systems be leveraged to support monitoring of digital marketing?
  3. Are there legal or jurisdictional considerations for monitoring digital marketing?

Policy context

Globally, restricting the marketing of unhealthy foods and beverages to children is a recognized strategy to help reverse childhood obesity trends. Canada is among a small number of countries taking regulatory action. Health Canada is developing regulations to restrict the advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages to children. This is a priority for the Minister of Health, a key element of Health Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy, and the focus of Bill S-228 – the Child Health Protection Act.  Monitoring the marketing activities of industry and exposure of children to marketing in all media, including digital, is essential in order to assess the impact of restrictions. Monitoring data will form the foundation of a mandatory five-year Parliamentary review of the legislation and inform future policy decisions.

While methods have been developed to monitor the exposure of children and adolescents to advertising in many conventional media channels (e.g., television), and to assess the power of these ads to influence their behaviour, digital media (social networks, streaming videos, games, mobile phones, etc.) have posed new challenges. It is more difficult to monitor advertising through channels that are less transparent and through which young consumers can be personally targeted. Furthermore, the active participation of young people in social networks and other digital activities may make promotions in these channels more powerful. Establishing methods to monitor this marketing has, therefore, become a priority for Health Canada.

Identified need for evidence

Monitoring digital marketing to children is a new area of study for public health and presents unique challenges. Methods to assess traditional marketing are not sufficient to measure marketing through digital media. More sophisticated approaches to measure and understand the extent and nature of digital food marketing to children, including with respect to behavioural marketing techniques, are required. To allow for monitoring over time and the dynamic nature of this field, approaches must also accommodate changes in technology/digital marketing, including on platforms that cannot even be anticipated today.

Public health experts can learn from other disciplines such as artificial intelligence, digital and information technologies, marketing, psychology, privacy and others. Cross-disciplinary approaches are required to address the methodological challenges and legal and jurisdictional issues also need to be considered given the global nature of digital marketing, the borderless nature of the Internet, privacy concerns and established regulatory approaches of other sectors/jurisdictions for protecting children in the digital media space. 

BBE Participants included representatives from Canadian universities, the World Health Organization, provincial health departments, non-governmental organizations working in media literacy, digital advocacy, public health and child obesity; Canadian broadcasters, Heritage Canada, the Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission, Health Canada, including directorates working in tobacco control, cannabis regulation, medical health products, science policy, and nutrition policy and regulation. No representatives from the food or digital media industries attending the meeting.

Anticipated outcomes

Health Canada will use the information from this exchange as it develops an approach to monitoring digital marketing to children. The following are anticipated:

  • Collaboration with WHO Europe to further develop a digital marketing protocol
  • Continued dialogue with federal and provincial regulators
  • Follow-up on ideas presented during the BBE.

Presentation summaries

The meeting was facilitated by Cecilia Van Egmond (Associate Director, Office of Legislative and Regulatory Modernization, Policy, Planning and International Affairs Directorate, Health Products and Food Branch, Health Canada). Below is a summary of the evidence presented by each of the invited speakers:

Monitoring food marketing to children: Issues, ethics, challenges, opportunities

Mimi Tatlow-Golden, PhD, Lecturer in Developmental Psychology and Childhood, Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies, Open University

This decade has seen an exponential growth of the digital marketing ecosystemFootnote 1 as part of the surveillance economy. Marketing is increasingly personalised via extraction and sale of personal data (despite GDPRFootnote 2) throughout programmatic ‘adtech’. Children can be targeted more precisely using many methods1 including geolocation and personality inferences (ad delivery based, for example, on extraversion or introversion)Footnote 3. Such ‘microtargeting’ can magnify the well-established impact of unhealthy food marketing on children’s food preferences, requests, choices and eating1,Footnote 4, Footnote 5 , by identifying those more vulnerable to its influence. Furthermore, when children acquire cognitive capacities (such as understanding advertising) it should not be assumed they become protected from marketing effects, as development is not linear1: increased capacity (e.g., greater independence and some purchasing power) can bring greater vulnerability (e.g., exposure to more marketing and likelihood to buy less healthy foods without parental guidance). Early indications are that teens are extensively targeted by such marketing, but information available to platforms and advertisers is currently inaccessible to public health stakeholders due to the heavily encrypted, ‘black box’ nature of most social media sites1,Footnote 6. It is critical that research and innovation establishes methods by which the extent and nature of marketing of unhealthy foods and its impact on children, including young people, can be tracked, measured and its impact assessedFootnote 1,Footnote 4.

Understanding young people’s engagement with today’s digital media & marketing ecosystem

Kathryn C. Montgomery, PhD, Professor, School of Communications and Center for Digital Democracy. American University.

Today’s children are also growing up in a multi-screen, multi-device, commercial digital environment that is undergoing a host of dynamic changes.  Mobile phones and other digital devices continue to proliferate and online and offline are increasingly merged, creating a fluidity of experience with a ubiquitous media culture that fosters 24/7 engagement. These developments have created challenges for researchers trying to monitor young people’s exposure to food marketing.  The complex, multidimensional digital marketing system makes it difficult to isolate advertising messages, which are also more personalized and tailored to individuals, changing in real time in response to user interactions. Exposure is only a partial way of understanding the impact of digital marketing on young people; researchers need to assess a range of other factors – including the degree and depth of “engagement” with brands.  It is also important to conduct ongoing research on the dynamically changing digital marketing apparatus.  Technology companies should be required to conduct audits of how their platforms are being used by food and beverage marketers, in order to provide greater transparency.  The industry’s own highly sophisticated analytics, measurement, and “brand safety” tools could also be made available to public health researchers.  Finally, because data protection and marketing are so integrated, researchers focused on food advertising would be wise to collaborate with privacy scholars.  All of these strategies should help us build a robust set of tools and expertise for monitoring the powerful digital marketing system and for developing the most effect policies to ensure the health and wellbeing of young people.

The digital environment, marketing activities within it, and availability of tools to monitor or control it

Scott Shortliffe, B.A., Chief Consumer Officer and Executive Director, Consumer Affairs and Strategy Policy, Canadian Radio-Television and Telecommunications Commission

Scott Shortliffe introduced the role of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission in regulating and monitoring internet and digital content, and the systems in place to regulate advertising. He explained that the CRTC does not regulate internet content and that it supports net neutrality.  

Since 1999, the CRTC has determined that the organization has jurisdictional authority to regulate digital media, but these activities have been provided with an ‘exemption order’ which suspends the use of this authority. As a result, digital media undertakings are allowed to operate without a license. Controlling on-line content would be difficult in the context of mixed professional and non-professional content, the borderless nature of the internet, and the volume of material that is uploaded.

Most internet advertising is controlled by transnational companies operating from outside Canada, making enforcement of national rules difficult. Foreign-based companies may claim that they follow local laws, but it can be challenging for the CRTC to exercise authority over them.

In broadcasting (television and radio), the CRTC does not directly regulate advertising content, although broadcasters must adhere to some voluntary industry codes as a condition of license. Advertising spending, however, is increasingly on digital platforms and on the purchase of data, and directed less to companies (like broadcasters) who are creating content.

The CRTC generates revenues from license holders, which are used to support broadcasting and research undertakings. The media literacy agency MediaSmarts was created as a result of a CRTC initiative.

Digital Food Marketing, Child Rights Protection & EU Cross-Border Trade

Amandine Garde, PhD, Professor of Law, Liverpool Law School

The adoption of a child-rights based approach to food marketing increases the imperative for all States around the world to effectively regulate the food industry and reduce the impact of unhealthy food marketing on children. The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) and other international human rights instruments should be interpreted in light of the evidence based WHO recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, unanimously adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2010. In particular:

  • States should adopt as comprehensive an approach as possible to limit the opportunities for investment shifts from regulated to unregulated programmes, media, settings and techniques. Contentious issues such as food packaging, food promotions at points of sale, food sponsorship… should be part of the discussion.
  • States should protect all children in light of the impact of such marketing on adolescents, on the basis of increasing evidence suggesting that older children are also affected by unhealthy food marketing and should be protected from its harmful effects.
  • States should act in the public interest and should prefer the implementation of government-led binding rules to the adoption of voluntary pledges by industry actors, with a view to avoiding real, perceived or potential conflicts of interests.

If the European Union derives extensive regulatory powers from the EU Treaties to regulate the cross-border marketing of unhealthy food, it has not yet used these powers to protect children effectively from the harmful impact of unhealthy food marketing. In particular, EU Member States have missed the opportunity to review the Audiovisual Media Services Directive in line with existing evidence. However, the General Data Protection Regulation (in force throughout the EU since May 2018) offers to ban the online profiling of children and protect them from direct digital marketing. Overall, therefore, the EU has not adopted a sufficiently comprehensive approach to the regulation of cross-border marketing of unhealthy food and has therefore failed to uphold “the best interests of the child” as “a primary consideration”, as Article 3 CRC and Article 24 EU Charter mandate.

Recommended readings

  1. Boyland, E. & Tatlow-Golden, M. (2017). Exposure, power and impact of food marketing on children: Evidence supports strong restrictions. European Journal of Risk and Regulation. 8(2): 224-236.
  2. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union.
  3. Matz, S.C., Kosinski, M., Nave, G., & Stillwell, D.J. (2017). Psychological targeting as an effective approach to digital mass persuasion. PNAS 114 (48): 12714-12719.
  4. Montgomery, K., Chester, J., Nixon, L., Levy, L., & Dorfman, L. (2017). Big Data and the transformation of food and beverage marketing: Undermining efforts to reduce obesity? Critical Public Health, 27. DOI: 10.1080/09581596.2017.1392483
  5. Ryan, J. (2018) Regulatory complaint concerning massive, web-wide data breach by Google and other “ad tech” companies under Europe’s GDPR. Brave Insights. 
  6. Tatlow-Golden, M, Verdoodt V, Oates J, Jewell J, Breda J, & Boyland E. (2017). A safe glimpse within the “black box”? Ethical and legal principles in assessing digital marketing of food and drink to children. WHO Public Health Panorama, 3(4): 613-621.
  7. United Nations Children’s Fund. (2018). A child rights-based approach to food marketing: A guide for policy makers. Geneva, CH: UNICEF Private Sector Engagement [ PDF (1.9 MB) - external link ].
  8. World Health Organization for Europe. (2018). Evaluating Implementation of the WHO Set of Recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children. Progress, challenges and guidance for next steps in the WHO European Region. Copenhagen, DK: WHO Regional Office for Europe [ PDF (1.9 MB) - external link ].
  9. World Health Organization Regional Office for Europe. (2016). Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives. Children’s rights, evidence of impact, methodological challenges, regulatory options and policy implications for the WHO European Union. Copenhagen, DK: WHO Regional Office for Europe. [ PDF (1.3 MB) - external link ]
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