marketing technologies may be a surprising ally in making the internet healthier

Digital and online ecosystems have for a long time been a playground for unregulated promotional campaigns of unhealthy products, from fast food to alcohol to tobacco. The newly published WHO report “Understanding the digital media ecosystem” explores how countries of the WHO European Region can protect people’s health by better controlling unethical digital advertising techniques, aimed mostly at children and adolescents.

Bringing change to a 600-billion-dollar market 

There is clear evidence that promotion of unhealthy products increases the risk of many noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including cancer, cardiovascular diseases, type 2 diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases. Moreover, online marketing of fast food and sugar-sweetened beverages is related to childhood obesity that can lead to severe NCDs later in life. 

Producers of unhealthy food, alcohol and tobacco use ever-changing digital ecosystems to unethically market their products to children, who have the right to be protected from misinformation and manipulation. 

New marketing techniques aimed at children and adolescents are being actively used on social media platforms, in video games and in other types of digital media. These techniques are particularly effective because they are aimed at building an emotional connection with the audience. 

But as the WHO report has indicated, today’s global digital advertisement ecosystem presents a new window of opportunity to change this 600-billion-dollar market. 

“The trends we are witnessing in the digital marketing ecosystem provide us with important insights for future work. Countries across the WHO European Region can use this information to build innovative and effective marketing control policies to protect children’s health,” said Dr Kremlin Wickramasinghe, a.i. Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases. 

Digital technologies can become allies for health 

Digital marketing is becoming more centralized, with big tech companies such as Google, Meta (formerly Facebook), Amazon and Microsoft accounting for 60–80% of digital media spending in key markets globally.

“It is easier to control advertising content in more vertically focused children’s apps and social and video channels,” explained Mr Tobin Ireland, WHO Special Industry Adviser for the European Region and the lead author of the report. “The same technologies that are currently being used to target unhealthy products advertisements at children or adolescents could as well be used to prevent these ads from reaching underage audiences.” 

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, societies and decision-makers all over the world are paying more attention to health issues and a global rise in obesity levels. The timing is good for more coordinated and direct discussions on future policies related to digital platforms. 

In this context, big tech companies are becoming obvious partners that Member States can approach to set responsible digital marketing rules to help create a healthier future for all, in line with the WHO European Programme of Work 2020–2025 – “United Action for Better Health in Europe”.

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