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Unilever tightens restrictions on food marketing to children

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Diving Brief:

  • Unilever is expanding the boundaries of marketing to children in its food and drink portfolio, according to a company announcement.
  • The owner of Hellmann’s and Ben & Jerry’s will no longer target children under 16 with marketing or social media communications. Also, it will not collect or store any data about consumers in this age group.
  • A similar guideline applies to influencer marketing, as Unilever will not work with any ambassadors under the age of 16 or whose primary audience is within that age range. Brands are expected to comply with these guidelines by January 2023 as Unilever places greater emphasis on responsible advertising.

Overview of the dive:

Unilever is further restricting how it markets food and drink products to children at a time of high scrutiny over data collection practices and social media harms. Previous efforts to limit campaigns aimed at young audiences have focused on health issues and tackling issues such as childhood obesity.

Messaging directly to very young children is widely considered unethical and carries potential regulatory penalties, but the CPG giant is increasing the age range of those it won’t target to include teenagers who may exercise greater financial independence and discerning tastes. The policy change underscores how Unilever is taking an increasingly cautious approach to digital and social media, particularly tactics like influencer marketing which can blur the lines of what is and is not advertising.

This is the company’s first major decision on advertising aimed at children since 2020. In that year, it stopped marketing food and beverages aimed at children under 12. on traditional media channels and under 13 on social networks.

Unilever aims to take an industry-leading position by increasing the age limit and including more specific rules in areas such as influencers. Children today are considered digital natives, having been introduced to smartphones and social media. In turn, apps like TikTok are driving cultural trends among Gen Z and younger impressionable cohorts. These demographics often place more importance on what their favorite content creators have to say over a traditional brand message, which has prompted advertisers to re-evaluate their media strategies, but could also force greater reflection on ethics.

Another factor informing Unilever’s decision concerns data. Marketers are increasingly criticized for collecting data on kids using apps and social media platforms, while dealing with an increasing number of data privacy laws. Many brands are flocking to the Metaverse at the same time, online virtual spaces that are popular with kids thanks to services like Roblox and Fortnite. But the metaverse has set off child safety alarms and privacy, while lacking some of the safeguards of digital marketing.

Unilever’s move comes amid a difficult period for the business. Earlier this year, the company was lambasted by an investor for focusing too much on targeted marketing and losing sight of the fundamentals. Then Unilever did a failed bid for GlaxoSmithKline’s consumer healthcare unit, further stoking investor anger. The fiasco was followed by activist investor Nelson Peltz taking a stake in the company and Unilever is reorganizing around five category-specific business groupsa corporate shake-up that included laying off 1,500 employees.