‘Healthy-lifestyle’ initiatives are being implemented in response to the global obesity crisis. Although some are undertaken by government agencies at global, regional and national levels(1–4), many are also undertaken by private-sector companies and corporate foundations(5–10) and through public–private partnerships involving the food, beverage and entertainment industries(11–13). In 2004, the US Congress directed an Institute of Medicine (IOM) expert committee to examine the influence of food and beverage marketing on the diets and health of American children and adolescents, and to identify effective marketing of foods and beverages to promote healthful choices(14). The IOM recommended that companies use their creativity, resources and full range of marketing practices to promote and support healthful diets for children and youth(14). Other international expert groups have also identified the potential to use market forces to support healthy behaviours to prevent obesity(Reference Doyle, Waters, Yach, McQueen, De Francisco, Stewart, Reddy, Gulmezoglu, Galea and Portela15, Reference Beaglehole, Ebrahim, Reddy, Voûte and Leeder16).
The current paper analyses different views about industry-supported marketing activities that promote healthy lifestyles with a particular focus on reaching children and adolescents. Given the recent emergence of industry-supported healthy-lifestyle initiatives, we explore the merits and shortcomings of these activities drawing from insightful reviews, relevant industry and government policy reports, corporate websites and media releases. We provide a brief summary of current global commercial marketing patterns reaching young people. We then discuss how healthy-lifestyle initiatives and partnerships may favourably influence global obesity trends (termed prospects); the complex and unresolved challenges inherent in such initiatives (termed pitfalls); and the implementation and evaluation of coordinated and systematic actions (termed priorities) to increase the likelihood that commercially marketed healthy-lifestyle initiatives and partnerships can positively contribute to reversing overweight and obesity rates among young people globally.
Global trends in commercial marketing to young people
Commercial marketing is a powerful force that shapes our lives and futures, influences social norms, and can provide societal benefits(Reference Wilkie and Moore17, Reference Boone and Kurtz18). The traditional marketing mix – product, place, price and promotion – represents many activities that net substantial revenue for transnational corporations and their shareholders(Reference Boone and Kurtz18, Reference Vignali19). Diverse industry sectors use many media and marketing channels to ensure that all promotional activities reaching young people produce unified, customer-focused messages. Children use many types of electronic media concurrently(Reference Foehr20); yet television remains the dominant form young people use in the USA(Reference Foehr20–Reference Rideout, Vandewater and Wartella22) and Europe(Reference Matthews, Cowburn, Rayner, Longfield and Powell23). Newer techniques include product placement across diverse media, school-based marketing, digital television, mobile phones, Internet-based advergames, social networking sites and viral marketing(14, Reference Matthews, Cowburn, Rayner, Longfield and Powell23–Reference Chester and Montgomery27).
Branding is a primary objective of the integrated marketing strategy of companies, representing a name or symbol that legally identifies companies, products or services that consumers differentiate among marketplace competitors. Companies strive to maintain consumer trust in their brand reputation and brand equity(Reference Langlois and Crossley28). Table 1 summarizes branding strategy components(Reference Roberts29–32) used by companies to market products and behaviours that support both healthy and unhealthy products and lifestyles.
Source: references 29–32.
Children’s brand awareness develops around 2 years of age and the majority of their food requests are for branded products(Reference John33). Branding influences children’s and adolescents’ choices, purchase requests and taste preferences(Reference John33, Reference Robinson, Borzekowski, Matheson and Kraemer34). Companies use branded spokescharacters to market high-energy and nutrient-poor foods and beverages to children, although there has been a recent shift to link characters to products with better nutrient profiles. Using brand strategies to promote healthy lifestyles to children is complex. Market forces alone are not sufficient to create and sustain young consumers’ demand for healthy lifestyle products and behaviours because they favour consumers’ short-term preferences for energy-dense foods, sweetened beverages and physical inactivity over foods and beverages conducive to achieving a healthy weight over the long term(Reference Moodie, Swinburn, Richardson and Somaini35).
Industry’s role in marketing both healthy and unhealthy images and products that influence lifestyles is important because marketing channels and strategies reaching young people are distinct from those reaching adults(14, Reference Booth, Sallis and Ritenbaugh36). Marketing to young children is controversial because of their inability to understand the persuasive intent of advertising messages and to older children because of certain highly sophisticated integrated marketing strategies used to influence their behaviours(14, Reference Swinburn, Sacks, Lobstein, Rigby, Baur, Brownell, Gill, Seidell and Kumanyika37). This concern is paradoxically countered by a growing interest to effectively use marketing both to improve the quality and content of commercial messages and to design more effective social-marketing campaigns(Reference Grier and Bryant38, 39).
Global commercial marketing trends, practices and regulations relevant to children have been comprehensively reviewed and analysed(14, Reference Matthews, Cowburn, Rayner, Longfield and Powell23, 40–Reference Hawkes44). A growing scepticism about voluntary industry self-regulation has led to support for using regulatory or legal instruments to address the marketing practices of unhealthy products to young people(Reference Alderman, Smith, Fried and Daynard45). In 2006, the WHO documented concerns about marketing to children and a plan to explore developing an International Code on Marketing of Foods and Non-alcoholic Beverages to Children(40). In early 2008, WHO released a draft action plan for member countries with a regulatory framework to limit marketing to children(46) and Consumers International and the International Obesity Taskforce recommended that WHO develop an International Code(47). Plans to present the Code at the World Health Assembly meeting(48) were thwarted by leading transnational corporations pledging support for the Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health (DPAS)(Reference Powell, Mackay, Rosenfeld, Michaels, Bulcke, Nooyi, Kent and Cescau49, 50) and publicly committing to improve global business practices such as reformulating products, disseminating nutrition information, and adopting voluntary advertising and marketing practices to children. While a six-year action plan was endorsed to implement the DPAS(51), no action was taken to adopt an International Code. Actions are underway to identify policy options by 2010(52).
Prospects, pitfalls and priorities
Prospects for commercially marketed healthy lifestyles to young people
The potential benefits of industry-sponsored, healthy-lifestyle initiatives include leveraging extensive resources, diverse expertise, and the capacity to reach millions of consumers through diverse marketing channels and media platforms. Industry-sponsored business strategies and public–private partnerships are discussed separately, although relevant initiatives often overlap.
Industry-sponsored business strategies
Some companies have modified business models to align with consumer demand for healthy lifestyles by identifying new target markets and marketing niches whereby healthy lifestyles can be profitable. Relevant business strategies include: developing new products with healthier nutrient profiles; reformulating existing products; using front-of-pack symbols to identify healthier products; packaging smaller portions; supporting employee and community wellness programmes; providing information to encourage healthy diets and active lifestyles; and merging with companies whose products are in healthier market segments(14, 53, Reference Bennett, Boles and Crossley54). For example, Danone has produced detailed nutrition maps and modified the formulation of its products in eight countries where it has markets(Reference Langlois and Crossley28). The Walt Disney Company has committed its brands and spokescharacters to support products and healthy behaviours across all global media businesses including parks and resorts, media networks, third-party licensed products and new child-targeted branded products(55). Transnational companies can potentially increase their reach and influence health-related consumer behaviours by making commercial messages consistent across all media and marketing venues, and investing resources in environments that sustain mutually reinforcing behaviours (i.e. improving dietary intake, increasing physical activity levels and reducing leisure screen time)(53).
Many transnational companies have their own branded healthy-lifestyle initiatives and marketing campaigns. Such approaches may convey that a company is addressing obesity while concurrently raising brand presence and highlighting healthier portfolio products(53, Reference Bennett, Boles and Crossley54). While most initiatives focus on influencing individual consumer behaviours, certain brand-philanthropy activities and public–private partnerships also support healthy lifestyles at the community level.
In the USA, the Coalition for Healthy Children(56) and the Small Step campaign(Reference Arthur57, 58) are two public–private partnerships that use research-based messages to ‘sell healthy lifestyles’ to Americans. The Convergence Partnership’s Healthy People in Healthy Places encourages market-based changes to create opportunities that enhance access to healthy food and physical activity(59). Shape Up Europe is a partnership supported by the European Commission’s Health and Consumer Protection Directorate (DG SANCO) and Kraft Cares, which promotes healthy lifestyles to children and parents through programmes in twenty-five cities within EU countries(13). While these approaches are promising, their benefits will depend on addressing several pitfalls discussed in the next section.
Pitfalls that may hinder progress
Corporate-sponsored initiatives and public–private partnerships present complex challenges that may limit obesity prevention benefits. Challenges involve factors influencing consumer and industry behaviours, and also the emergence of obesity in low- and middle-income countries where undernutrition remains an unsolved public health issue.
Several factors may limit the effectiveness of commercially marketed healthy-lifestyle initiatives and social-marketing campaigns. For child-oriented marketing these include the combination of: innate eating-related predispositions; certain culturally based child-feeding practices; and social and economic environments that reinforce dietary excess and physical inactivity. Children’s eating behaviours are now often developing under unprecedented conditions of dietary abundance, where palatable, inexpensive, energy-dense and nutrient-poor foods and beverages are readily available(Reference Savage, Orlet Fisher and Birch60). Infants are born with biological preferences for sweet, salty and fat flavours, and high energy-dense foods. Yet they also have inadequate behavioural control mechanisms for self-regulating their energy intake and satiety in the presence of dietary abundance(Reference Savage, Orlet Fisher and Birch60).
Consumer research indicates that children and their parents value taste, cost and convenience over health in making purchasing and consumption decisions, especially if the healthy choice is more expensive(Reference Wansink and Huckabee61). Secular trends show an increase in portion sizes and consumption norms, revealed by larger product packages and portions sold in grocery stores and restaurants, and larger kitchenware at home, that collectively influence young consumers’ perceptions of what is normal and appropriate to serve their families and consume for themselves(Reference Wansink and van Ittersum62). Effective marketing of larger energy-dense food portions undermines children’s diet quality and appropriate energy intake to achieve energy balance and a healthy weight(Reference Colapinto, Fitzgerald, Taper and Veugelers63).
Despite industry innovations to promote healthy lifestyles, the predominant marketing of products, aspirations and behaviours to young people is currently inconsistent with healthy lifestyles. An evaluation of the leading twenty-five food and beverage, food retailer and restaurant companies found that not one has yet publicly conveyed a clear strategy or set of objectives applicable to its entire business to respond to consumer health and obesity issues worldwide(Reference Lang, Rayner and Kaelin64). An analysis of food and beverage products targeted to American children and youth by leading companies from 1994 to 2004 found that most products were high in total energy, sugar and fat and low in nutrients(14).
Some assessments have found egregious industry practices. A tendency to alter information about potential adverse health effects of some products has been reported, where companies sponsoring research on their own products are less likely to report unfavourable effects or may modify the study design to highlight product benefits and minimize adverse effects(Reference Lesser, Ebbeling, Goozner, Wypij and Ludwig65). Although industry self-regulation is undergoing positive changes, some companies continue to engage in misleading advertising to children. An analysis of thirty-seven child-targeted product brands found that two-thirds of the product packages advertised to children and parents promoted images or references to fruit but contained little or no fruit and added sweeteners, thereby delivering minimal nutritional benefits(Reference Mikkelsen, Merlo, Lee and Chao66). Assessments of Nickelodeon, the television network most watched by American children, found that a majority of foods marketed by this entertainment company are of poor nutritional quality despite public commitments to change their marketing practices(Reference Batada and Wootan67, 68). Limited data are available to independently assess the speed and magnitude of industry’s progress towards achieving commitments to reformulate and promote healthier products(14, 53, Reference Lang, Rayner and Kaelin64).
Food, beverage and restaurant companies may focus attention and resources primarily on physical activity, implicitly de-emphasizing the role of food quality and portion size in achieving energy balance and reducing obesity risk. An exclusive focus on physical activity is insufficient to offset the excess energy consumption associated with marketing practices that promote unhealthy diets(Reference Ludwig and Nestle69). Furthermore, sponsorship of international sporting events by fast food and beverage companies has raised scrutiny about whether physical activity events should be used to promote unhealthy products and behaviours. Such sponsorship may also produce other adverse effects including corporate expansion in countries with emerging markets and undermining domestic health legislation(Reference Collin and MacKenzie70). Corporate philanthropy motives reveal that companies support programmes to enhance corporate reputation and gain knowledge about potential new markets(71).
Although public health practitioners and advocates recognize that social marketing can positively influence health behaviour(Reference Grier and Bryant38, 39), commercial marketing motives are often mistrusted. Historically this was not always the case. During the 1920s and 1930s, US public health practitioners partnered with food companies to develop reinforcing messages that strengthened emerging social norms to address childhood undernutrition(Reference Lovett72). Addressing undernutrition involves producing and distributing more food, which are more compatible responses with current industry business models than reducing food and beverage consumption to prevent childhood obesity. Childhood obesity poses a dilemma for the food, beverage and restaurant industry sectors if solutions lead to reduced food and beverage product sales, profits and market share(Reference Ludwig and Nestle69). In this sense, scepticism about industry motives is appropriate; companies must make a profit to remain economically viable. Sedentary entertainment company profits (e.g. advertising revenue or sales of games and devices) may also be adversely affected by initiatives that limit young people’s screen time. Interactive videogames may increase children’s physical activity levels(Reference Lanningham-Foster, Jensen, Foster, Redmond, Walker, Heinz and Levine73) but inadequately to offset excessive energy consumption to achieve a healthy weight.
Although justified, scepticism about industry motives may complicate public–private collaborations. When public health and corporate goals conflict, corporate profit imperatives often trump public health imperatives(Reference Lewin, Lindstrom and Nestle74). Some have questioned whether industry should be entrusted to convey public health education by using advertising as a solution to address a problem attributed to excessive advertising(Reference Schor and Ford75). Others have advocated for a new social norm that eliminates marketing to children(Reference Swinburn, Sacks, Lobstein, Rigby, Baur, Brownell, Gill, Seidell and Kumanyika37, Reference James, Rigby, Leach, Kumanyika, Lobstein and Swinburn76), and for instituting appropriate checks and balances to align the financial interests of industry with the goals of public health(Reference Ludwig and Nestle69). There is also controversy over using branding, celebrity endorsement and licensed cartoon spokescharacters to market to children who are not cognitively mature enough to understand the purpose of persuasive intent(14, Reference Swinburn, Sacks, Lobstein, Rigby, Baur, Brownell, Gill, Seidell and Kumanyika37, Reference Gosliner and Madsen77). The concern relates to the use of these strategies to promote high-energy and nutrient-poor products(Reference Linn and Novosat78) and messages inconsistent with healthy lifestyles, and also to any strategy that may directly or indirectly increase children’s brand loyalty for a company’s unhealthy product line.
Companies may pressure non-profit organizations to enter cause-related marketing relationships that use co-branding to promote unhealthy food and beverage brands in exchange for unrestricted funds that support all programmes. The results may undermine the credibility of non-profit organizations and may facilitate access to clients to enhance the marketing of energy-dense products. Using non-profit organizations as marketing liaisons may be particularly problematic for organizations supporting anti-hunger, child development, education and emergency response programmes. Failure to partner with companies in ways that facilitate marketing of certain products may result in overall loss of financial support from companies or corporate foundations. Thus, non-profit organizations will need to negotiate different terms of engagement to support effective partnerships.
In the current childhood obesity context, there are examples of branded, healthy-lifestyle social-marketing campaigns funded by both public and private sources(12). However, campaign messages may differ from commercial marketing messages, even those supported by the same company. Overall, social-marketing campaigns are unlikely to compete with transnational company marketing investments because most are not commercially driven and do not have comparable resources to support long-term population health goals(Reference James, Rigby, Leach, Kumanyika, Lobstein and Swinburn76, Reference Kraak and Pelletier79). Social marketers also do not have easy access to proprietary commercial marketing research to design effective programmes to influence young people’s behavioural changes(14, 53). Developing a mechanism to share proprietary commercial marketing data with the public sector may help to design effective healthy-lifestyle initiatives for young people to deliver coordinated commercial and social-marketing messages and interventions with greater transparency across diverse media channels and national borders.
Emergence of obesity in low- and middle-income countries
A substantial challenge for developing countries is the unsolved problem of undernutrition (i.e. underweight, stunting and micronutrient deficiencies), which may coexist with obesity in the same communities or households(Reference Barquera, Peterson, Must, Rogers, Flores, Houser, Monterrubio and Rivera-Dommarco80, Reference Garrett and Ruel81). Commercial marketing should address both undernutrition and obesity prevention in a coherent and strategic manner(Reference Ezzati, Vander Hoorn, Lawes, Leach, James, Lopez, Rodgers and Murray82–Reference Popkin84). Marketing strategies that encourage consumption of high-energy foods may be encouraged in communities where hunger and food insecurity exist. Transnational companies that have adopted healthy-lifestyle marketing practices in affluent countries may not employ these practices consistently in low- and middle-income countries(85) where there are limited self-regulatory codes(Reference Hawkes43).
Priorities for achieving positive outcomes
Industry-supported healthy-lifestyle initiatives are an important feature of the marketing and media environments. Market forces may have positive impacts on consumer health(53, Reference Bennett, Boles and Crossley54, Reference Majoras86) and diverse industry sectors have potential to profitably create consumer demand for products and opportunities that support healthy lifestyles(14, 53, 87). Priorities involve implementing and evaluating coordinated and systematic actions to position commercially marketed healthy-lifestyle initiatives and partnerships to make positive contributions to decrease overweight and obesity rates among young people globally. As discussed below, needed actions involve connecting individually focused healthy-lifestyle initiatives to environmental and policy changes that support healthy communities, ensuring effective accountability mechanisms, evaluating a range of outcomes, and leveraging adequate resources comparable to the need to shape the globalized marketing and media environments to promote healthy lifestyles.
Connecting healthy lifestyles to healthy communities
Institutionalizing and connecting healthy-lifestyle initiatives to those that aim to create healthy communities will assist young people to achieve energy balance and a healthy weight. Individuals and interest groups can be effectively mobilized to influence policy makers to develop healthy communities and expand the range of healthy choices(88). Changing people’s environments can lead to conflicts between and among different sectors and interest groups due to altering the access, use and distribution of resources or by creating constraints on preferred behaviours; however, these conflicts must be effectively addressed(Reference Dorfman and Wallack89).
Ensuring effective accountability mechanisms
Accountability mechanisms should be established for corporations by representatives of governments, industry sectors, public health and consumer advocacy constituencies. These mechanisms should be transparent, reinforcing and receptive to diverse stakeholder input. One mechanism is for companies to publically report progress for integrating healthy-lifestyle initiatives consistently across all business strategies and promotional activities. Available evaluations have found that few companies have established key performance indicators relating to the use of external groups to assess their progress or publicly communicated a coherent response for marketing across all product lines and divisions(Reference Langlois and Crossley28, 53, Reference Lang, Rayner and Kaelin64).
Strengthening industry self-regulatory codes for advertising and marketing to children is a second accountability mechanism. In Canada, sixteen leading food and beverage companies pledged to market more responsibly through the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative and focus their advertising on healthy active living by the end of 2008(90, Reference Cook91). Although Advertising Standards Canada will audit compliance and publish annual reports, concerns have been raised to increase transparency and ensure company commitments because there are no clear enforcement mechanisms or penalties for non-compliant companies, and the information used to assess compliance will not be publicly released(Reference Cook91).
In the EU, eleven leading food and beverage companies pledged to make voluntary changes affecting advertising to children and to publish the policy commitments by the end of 2008(92). Several steps have been documented by the EU’s Platform on Diet, Physical Activity and Health to strengthen industry accountability, which include: providing training to establish self-regulatory organizations; encouraging stakeholder involvement; and raising awareness to adopt the International Chamber of Commerce’s Framework for Responsible Food and Non-Alcoholic Beverage Communications(93).
In the USA, the US Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB) and the National Advertising Review Council announced revisions to the Children’s Advertising Review Unit’s Self-Regulatory Guidelines(94) and established the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI)(95, 96). The CFBAI represents fifteen of the largest food, beverage and restaurant companies advertising to children that have pledged to shift advertising messages to encourage healthy diets and lifestyles to children younger than 12 years(97). In July 2008, the CBBB released its first compliance report for thirteen CFBAI-participating companies(98). A Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report was also released, acknowledging company improvement(99) that aligned with recommendations in an earlier government report(100). However, the FTC Commissioner noted that further industry improvements are essential to ensure that company pledges apply to all forms of marketing directed to children(101). Industry-supported self-regulatory codes that address only selected advertising practices, instead of the full range of companies’ marketing practices, are unlikely to have broad-reaching effects to reduce unhealthy products and behaviours. Independent assessments of industry commitments are critical to evaluate progress and to improve the effectiveness of healthy-lifestyle marketing.
A third accountability mechanism would be for WHO to adopt an International Code on Marketing of Foods and Non-alcoholic Beverages to Children(40). However, the code would need to address a vast array of energy-dense, low-nutrient food and beverage products, many types of marketing vehicles and venues, and the role of the sedentary entertainment industry in marketing products to children with unhealthy nutrient profiles. Enforcing professional codes of conduct with respect to public–private partnerships is a fourth accountability mechanism. Guidelines are available to assist organizations to clarify the purpose, terms and management of private-sector engagement(102). Academic institutions have developed similar guidelines for industry interactions(103), and foundations are establishing criteria for prospective grantees making them ineligible for obesity prevention research support if they receive funding from businesses that market low-nutrient food or beverage products to children(104).
Evaluating healthy-lifestyle outcomes
Government and private-sector healthy-lifestyle initiatives and public–private partnerships should be evaluated to assess the collective progress made towards achieving positive outcomes. Monitoring and evaluating a range of outcomes can provide insight into anticipated progress and unintended consequences. Frameworks have been developed by the WHO(105), the EU Platform(106) and the IOM(53) to assess progress made towards achieving a range of obesity prevention outcomes across different sectors and settings.
Leveraging resources to promote healthy lifestyles
Adequate resources must be identified and mobilized over the next several decades to reorient the globalized marketing and media environments to promote healthy lifestyles. Resources supporting an optimal policy response must reflect a country’s specific context, including social, political and legal environments, and must be sufficiently resilient to respond to future policy needs as the global marketplace changes. There must be potent and consistent embedding of healthy lifestyles to transform societal expectations, social norms and consumer behaviours over a sustained time frame. Resources can be generated through public–private partnerships and industry innovation but transparency and accountability mechanisms must be firmly established. If we are to have a measureable impact we must plan for a global public–private investment in healthy lifestyles and obesity prevention that is adequate to address the scope of the problem. The combined government and private-sector resources totalling more than $US 50 billion leveraged to address HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria in developing countries(107, 108) provides a potentially relevant precedent for obesity prevention in resource-constrained countries experiencing undernutrition and obesity as a double burden.
Public- and private-sector healthy-lifestyle initiatives and partnerships have recently emerged in the USA and internationally. The present paper examined the prospects, pitfalls and priorities related to commercial marketing practices promoting healthy lifestyles to help reverse obesity trends for children and adolescents. To be effective, marketing approaches must support environments for young people to engage regularly in healthy lifestyle behaviours, across cultures, geographic locations and social contexts. Prospects include industry-sponsored business strategies and public–private partnerships that have the potential to harness extensive resources, diverse expertise, and the capacity to reach millions of consumers through diverse media and marketing channels. Pitfalls include consumer and industry behaviours that may hinder achieving positive outcomes related to healthy-lifestyle marketing initiatives and public–private partnerships. In middle- and low-income countries, a substantial challenge is to apply strategies that effectively address the double burden of undernutrition and obesity. Priorities include connecting healthy lifestyles to healthy communities, ensuring effective accountability mechanisms, evaluating healthy-lifestyle initiatives against a range of outcomes, and leveraging adequate resources over the next several decades to support evidence-based, population-based interventions that adequately address the scope of the obesity problem among young people globally.
The authors declare that they received no funding to support the development of this paper and that they have no conflict of interest. The views expressed here are those of the authors and not necessarily those of Save the Children Federation, Inc. V.I.K. developed the initial concept, conducted the literature review, and developed the initial draft of the paper. M.S. and S.K.K. further developed the concepts, identified references, and contributed to subsequent drafts of the paper. All authors read and approved the final manuscript. We thank Professor Sonya Grier (American University, Washington, DC) for providing comments on an earlier draft of this paper.