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Unhealthy product marketing to kids

Thursday 19 March, 2020

VG research

Photo: Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer demonstrates AI technology. 

A revolutionary new method to monitor how products that increase the risk of cancer are marketed to children, is one of five research projects newly funded under Cancer Council Victoria’s $2.3million Venture Grants program.

The team will create a world-first, automated approach for monitoring children’s exposure to, and engagement with, the advertising of products known to increase risk of cancer (alcohol, tobacco and junk food).The project has brought together experts across public health, policy, complex systems and artificial intelligence.

The World Health Organization recently identified a critical need for tools to monitor children’s exposure to and engagement with unhealthy advertising, yet no such tools currently exist globally. Last week, a WHO–UNICEF–Lancet Commission called for action to regulate commercial harm to children, citing ‘they are enormously exposed to advertising from business, whose marketing techniques exploit their developmental vulnerability and whose products can harm their health and wellbeing.’

Lead researcher, Associate Professor Kathryn Backholer of Deakin University, said with the rise of digital and social media platforms, children are being exposed to high volumes of marketing of alcohol, tobacco and junk food, and it’s personalised and more targeted by industry than ever before.

“Essentially we are creating an urgently-needed low-resource tool, that will provide a rigorous, and ethically sound way of monitoring exposure to harmful advertising in both physical and digital environments. The tool will use cutting-edge AI technologies and eye tracking capabilities, which have been developed for other applications, such as Australian Defence and elite sports behavioural psychology. Understanding how children engage with various forms of advertising and marketing strategies will support future policies to effectively protect children and the wider public health.”

Jane Martin, Executive Manager of Alcohol and Cancer Programs at Cancer Council Victoria, said that protecting children from harmful exposure to unhealthy marketing is crucial to the prevention of cancer.

“Evidence shows that marketing of unhealthy products to children adversely influences their attitudes and behaviours well into the future. Companies spend millions on advertising their unhealthy products to kids because they know it works to drive sales. This is an innovative approach that will enable us to understand how to protect children from the influence and impact of products known to increase the risk of cancer.”

Cancer Council Victoria is the largest not-for-profit funder of cancer research in the state. The Venture Grants program is designed to support innovative researchers with courageous ideas who would not be able to attract conventional funding.

Cancer Council Victoria’s CEO, Todd Harper, said funding research like this ensures the brightest minds and boldest research get a chance.

“It’s important we fund bold, innovative research that could achieve the next breakthrough in cancer prevention, treatment and diagnosis. These projects are pursuing new and imaginative ways to improve cancer outcomes for all Victorians.”

For a full list of the Venture Grants recipients, and more information, visit

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