Unilever tightens restrictions on food marketing targeted at kids

    • Unilever is broadening the limits on how it markets to children across its food and beverage portfolio, according to a company announcement
    • The Hellmann’s and Ben & Jerry’s owner will no longer target children under 16 with any marketing or social media communications. It also will not collect or store any data on consumers in that age group. 
    • A similar directive applies to influencer marketing, as Unilever will not work with any ambassadors under 16 or whose primary audience lands in that age range. Brands are expected to comply with these guidelines by January 2023 as Unilever places a greater premium on responsible advertising.  

    Unilever is further restricting how it markets food and beverage products to children at a time when scrutiny of data collection practices and the harms of social media is high. Previous efforts to limit campaigns angled at young audiences have been positioned around health concerns and combating problems like childhood obesity. 

    Directly messaging to very young children is widely considered unethical and carries potential regulatory penalties, but the CPG giant is pushing up the age range of who it won’t target to include teens who may wield 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 that can blur the lines of what is and isn’t an ad. 

    This is the first major move the company has made in regards to advertising to children since 2020. That year, it stopped marketing food and beverages to children under the age of 12 on traditional media channels and below the age of 13 on social media. 

    Unilever aims to take an industry-leading position in raising the age cap and including more specific rules around areas like influencers. Children today are considered digital natives, having been raised familiar with smartphones and social media. In turn, apps like TikTok are driving cultural trends among Gen Z and younger impressionable cohorts. These demographics frequently put more stock in what their favorite content creators have to say versus a traditional branded message, which has spurred advertisers to reassess their media strategies but could also mandate greater reflection around ethics. 

    Another factor informing Unilever’s decision concerns data. Marketers have come under increasing fire for collecting data on children using apps and social media platforms, while facing a growing number of data privacy laws. Many brands at the same time are flocking to the metaverse, virtual online spaces that are popular with kids thanks to services like Roblox and Fortnite. But the metaverse has raised alarms regarding child safety and privacy, while not having some of the guardrails of digital marketing.

    The move from Unilever comes amid a rocky period for the business. Earlier this year, the company was castigated by an investor for focusing too much on purpose marketing and losing sight of fundamentals. Then, Unilever made a failed bid for the consumer health unit of GlaxoSmithKline, further stoking investor ire. The fiasco was followed by activist investor Nelson Peltz taking a stake in the company and Unilever reorganizing around five category-specific business groups, a corporate shuffle that included laying off 1,500 staff.


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