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Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer products group, said on Thursday it would stop marketing its products directly to children under 12 in order to reduce the harm caused by marketing unhealthy products to young people.

The world’s second-largest consumer goods group behind Procter & Gamble said that, from 2021, it would only use advertising and marketing in venues that are “underwritten by real businesses” in new markets where there are children under 12, including some developing countries and internet platforms in the US and China.

The move comes just two months after Unilever co-founder Floris van Beurden was elevated to the role of chairman and chief executive.

Unilever’s CEO said: “As a multinational business with over 160,000 employees across the world, the advertising market is global and the likelihood of children to be exposed to Unilever’s brand messages is high in most parts of the world, including those where it is now increasing.

“The many stakeholders who value the outcomes of strong advertising health and wellbeing are also, in some cases, those who are most likely to access and consume Unilever’s food and beverage products.

“Combined with the potentially adverse impacts on the growth opportunities for emerging markets, it is clear that to reverse unhealthy consumption trends in these key markets Unilever has no choice but to take action in their home countries.”

The company is expanding in emerging markets and added $16bn to its sales last year, or 43 per cent of its total, with rising demand for foods such as biscuits and ice cream offsetting weakness in developing Europe and the US.

The measure was already made illegal by the UK government under a law in force since 2004. Under the law, all marketing of unhealthy food and drinks aimed at children under the age of 12 has to be avoided.

Unilever said it could still include a wider advertising category, including products targeted at children aged 10 or above, as long as they were vetted by a consumer expert, consumer research group Nielsen and commissioned by a company whose specific mission was to serve children.