Digital marketing targeted at children: public health community calls for immediate action


On 12 October 2017, in Ljubljana, Slovenia, the National Institute of Public Health, under the leadership of Dr Mojca Gabrijelčič, with the support of WHO, organized a capacity-building workshop on digital marketing targeted at children.

In the absence of effective regulation of digital media in many countries, children are increasingly exposed to persuasive, individually tailored marketing techniques. Products are promoted through, for example, social media sites and “advergames”, which advertise products through video games. Digital marketing is defined by WHO as promotional activity, delivered through a digital medium, that seeks to maximize impact through creative methods activating implicit emotional persuasion and/or analysis of emotions, responses, preferences, behaviour and location to target specific groups, individuals and particular moments of vulnerability or to maximize the impact of creative methods.

The workshop brought together 40 participants from the National Institute of Public Health, the Ministry of Health, the Agency for Communication Networks and Services of the Republic of Slovenia (AKOS), WHO (represented by Mr Jo Jewell and Dr Darina Sedláková), the Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety (DG SANTE), EuroHealthNet, nongovernmental organizations and academia, along with experts from Slovakia and Austria. Participants heard lectures on the principles of digital marketing and the importance of public health action, and on legislative issues and technological options. A comparative overview of the situation in each of the participating countries that lack effective regulation was also presented during the event.

The 3 key objectives of the workshop were to:

  • raise awareness;
  • develop background materials and recommendations on digital marketing to children;
  • define common denominators for more efficient work in the area of digital marketing of “lifestyle products” to children and adolescents.

Slovenia is one of the founding members of the European Action Network on Reducing Marketing Pressure on Children, established by WHO in 2008. In 2016, the National Institute of Public Health of Slovenia reviewed marketing practices and the regulation of marketing around lifestyle areas such as tobacco, alcohol, gaming and gambling, physical activity and nutrition in the country. The findings encouraged them to launch a digital marketing initiative in Slovenia and to call for international collaboration in this area.

Participants recognized the contribution of WHO in compiling evidence and best practices to tackle the growing problem of digital marketing to children. They built on the report “Tackling food marketing to children in a digital world: trans-disciplinary perspectives”, published by WHO Europe in 2016, which addressed the growing issue of food marketing targeted at children via digital media and called for immediate action by policy-makers.

Group work, with roundtable style discussions, was aimed at considering future developments and necessary measures to be put in place. Participants voted for the propositions they considered most important. They covered ethics, governance and leadership, framing and regulation, capacity-building, research, and a call for immediate action. Digital marketing is linked to all lifestyle areas which, directly or indirectly, affect public health; therefore a multidisciplinary competence and participatory approach is needed. This is in line with the principles of Health 2020 and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

Conclusions and recommendations of the workshop

A key outcome of the workshop was the unanimous agreement that immediate action is needed to provide a framework within which digital marketing to children can be regulated. The recommendations included the establishment of an intersectoral body and the provision of more resources for public health actions. Participants called for closer collaboration with WHO and the European Commission in developing clear guidance on regulation of media marketing, improving digital media literacy and stimulating research on digital marketing for children.