Unilever will stop marketing and advertising foods and beverages to children younger than 12 in traditional media and younger than 13 in social media channels by the end of this year, the company said in a blog post. The Europe-based CPG company said it will initially make the shift with its Wall's ice cream brand, which is sold in a number of European, Asian and Middle Eastern countries.
The move was prompted by the World Health Organization calling childhood obesity one of the most serious public health issues of this century, Unilever said. Wall's products will carry a "Responsibly Made for Kids" logo on point-of-sale materials, so shoppers know which items are made for children. Ice cream products designed for kids will contain a maximum of 110 calories and 12 grams of sugar per serving, the company added.
"Our promise is a genuine commitment to make and market products to children responsibly. It is the promise of better ice cream and healthier, happier children. Both now and in the future," Matt Close, Unilever's executive vice president, global ice cream category, said in the post.
Adopting more responsible advertising and marketing principles for foods and beverages designed for children could be a game-changer for Unilever and other CPG makers that decide to follow its lead. Parents and caregivers are increasingly concerned about the tactics used to market unhealthy foods and drinks to impressionable youngsters, so companies willing to limit this type of outreach could earn some points with that audience.
Children have long been a major advertising target for all kinds of companies, with more than $12 billion spent annually to focus on them. According to 2017 Nielsen data, children see more than 16,000 commercials in a year, and it's a safe bet a good chunk of those relate to foods and beverages.
Childhood obesity has become a serious issue for public health advocates, parents and caregivers and government agencies. WHO estimated the global number of overweight children younger than five at more than 41 million in 2016. The U.K. government, citing rising obesity levels, set a voluntary target in 2016 to limit sugar in certain children's foods by 20% by 2020, which could be a reason why Unilever is starting this initiative with its Wall's brand.
Other CPG companies that have put limits on advertising certain products to children include General Mills and Mars. The latter kicked off the trend in 2007 with its Mars Marketing Code, which prohibits the company from buying advertising time for foods, snacks and confectionery products if more than 25% of an audience is likely younger than 12.
General Mills has a Responsible Marketing Council to review marketing plans for products meant for children. The company doesn't directly advertise its products in pre-K through 12th grade schools or on programming or media meant for children younger than 6. According to CNBC, the cereal maker follows standards set by the Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative. Among other core principles, the initiative asks participating companies to publicly commit to advertising "that will further the goal of promoting healthy dietary choices and healthy lifestyles to children under age 12."
If Unilever meets its stated goal by the end of this year, the company could potentially expand these new marketing principles well beyond Wall's ice cream products. The company's portfolio contains popular U.S. ice cream brands including Breyers, Good Humor, Klondike and Ben & Jerry's, which all have products appealing to children.
Should the new marketing and advertising strategy gain traction among consumers who purchase ice cream and other food and beverage items for children, they may start looking for the "Responsibly Made for Kids" logo on other Unilever products and push competitors to do likewise. This development could position Unilever as a more responsible and caring company and help elevate its profile among influential millennials and others who want healthier products both for themselves and their children.