New Study: Internet ads undermine local advertising bans to protect children

According to a new study by Catherine Tucker, a marketing professor at MIT Sloan, efforts by the World Health Organization (WHO) to limit junk food marketing to kids may ineffective if they mimic current bans on local alcohol advertising.

From cigarettes, to violent video games, to fatty or sugary foods, Tucker’s research, which examines local bans on alcohol advertising across the US, is applicable to any kinds of restrictions on advertising.

In the case of junk food consumption, WHO recently said that it will use the next U.N. General Assembly meeting in September to discuss limiting the number of ads, and types of ads targeted to children. The measures would likely be similar to those taken in the marketing of alcohol and tobacco, with many countries now limiting or banning advertising of both on television during certain hours. But according to Tucker, laws that restrict advertising only deal with the offline world because towns and states are unable to restrict the content of Internet ads that their residents view.

Her new paper has two key findings: People living in the places that ban billboards advertising alcoholic beverages are less likely to say that they will buy that beverage. Secondly, when those people are randomly exposed to Internet advertising for that beverage, they are far more persuaded by these ads than their counterparts in places that don’t ban billboards. (Many states, such as California and Pennsylvania, have restrictions on so-called “out-of-home” ads for things like alcohol and tobacco on billboards, storefront signage, and transit ads.)

Tucker’s research implies that for as long as Internet advertising exists, governments are going to find it a lot harder to prevent their residents from seeing and being persuaded by advertising that they have banned.

When these findings are put in the context of attempts to ban junk food ads aimed at kids, it’s clear that the WHO’s efforts may not make much of a difference in the fight against childhood obesity. And it could even have the opposite effect: if a child who lives in a place where there is a ban on out-of home ads for junk food, but is exposed to Internet advertising for junk food, he or she could be far more persuaded by the ads than counterparts who live in places that don’t ban that kind of marketing. It’s food for thought.

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