When an influencer or public figure is seen consuming or endorsing unhealthy products, such as foods and beverages high in salt, fats and sugars, this often has an immediate effect on their followers. It may influence their consumption, attitudes and preferences. Even a simple action by a high-profile celebrity can have a significant impact and cannot be underestimated.
Big brands spend billions on advertising. Digital marketing expenditure on unhealthy product promotion continues to grow and a large share of this spending focuses on attracting influencers on social media to promote branded product placement and promotions. This field is still highly unregulated, and industry is taking advantage of that to promote unhealthy products to everyone, including children and youth.
However, recent examples of sports stars removing sugar-sweetened beverages while addressing reporters have met with approval online and in the media, garnering praise for their actions in choosing healthier options. This showed how individuals and influencers – especially those looked up to by young people – can make a positive impact and challenge the messages propagated by big brands.
Making the healthy choice is not always easy
“However small these actions may seem, the resulting media attention demonstrates the potential impact that influencers can have on health, by encouraging either healthy or unhealthy behaviours,” said Dr Carina Ferreira Borges, acting Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases.
Sweetened soft drinks play a role in the overconsumption of sugar that contributes to the onset of noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), which are the leading cause of deaths worldwide and the number one cause of death in the WHO European Region.
There is increasing concern that intake of free sugars (or added sugars) – particularly in the form of sugar-sweetened beverages – increases overall energy intake and may reduce the intake of foods containing more nutritionally adequate calories, leading to an unhealthy diet, weight gain and increased risk of obesity and NCDs, such as cardiovascular diseases.
WHO recommends reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 10% of total energy intake in both adults and children.
Children and young people are especially vulnerable
Childhood obesity is an ongoing challenge for many countries in the WHO European Region. There is overwhelming evidence that the marketing of foods and beverages high in saturated fat, trans-fatty acids, free sugars or salt influences a child’s knowledge, attitudes and food preferences.
WHO/Europe is committed to improving methods for monitoring and restricting digital marketing of unhealthy products to children, including by engaging influencers. It is vital to investigate how suitable current policies are to protect children in the WHO European Region from marketing pressure.
Overweight and obesity in children, as well as related NCDs, are preventable if healthy choices are the easy choices for everyone starting from childhood.
“We need to ensure that it becomes easier for parents and those who care for children to be well-informed about healthy options and that these are widely available and affordable. We also need more restrictions on marketing of unhealthy products, breaking links with sporting contexts and contexts where children and young people are likely to be exposed.
“Amid all this is the right to choose – something we would all endorse if people’s choices were not affected by conscious and unconscious factors that influence decision-making when they are exposed to different marketing practices, like influencer marketing. In that context, bold influencers make a huge difference when they come forward – as influencers who experience the same exposure to marketing of unhealthy products as we all do,” concluded Dr Ferreira Borges.
A simple action in front of the cameras could now provide a watershed moment – one in which influencers are not just used to promote a product but warn of its dangers. Empowered and conscientious individuals can play a significant role in health promotion.