ADVERTISING: Facts show children not targeted

By Katherine Rich (in Supermarket News) 15 September 2015

There’s a lot of confusion and ignorance around the marketing and advertising of foods to children, be it on television, online, or simply on product packaging which is designed to catch the eye on a supermarket shelf.

Public health academics frequently call for the Government to restrict the marketing and advertising of what they call “unhealthy” food, but the truth of the matter is that the food industry has a responsible attitude to this and already adheres to strict marketing and advertising rules. These include clear codes that are overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority. For example, the Children’s Code for Advertising Food says food advertising should not undermine the wellbeing of children or government nutrition policy, and should not encourage over-consumption of any food, particularly treat food, snacks, or fast food. 

In addition to that, most Food & Grocery Council member companies have clearly-stated public policies that they will not place advertising where children are the main audience. Our members regard these codes as very important and as the right and responsible thing to do. 

This approach is paying off. It’s a little-known fact that the amount of advertising to children on TV has decreased dramatically since 1999, when one of the key studies looking at food advertising during children’s programming was done. There is now no advertising during pre-school times and there is limited advertising during other times.  Last year just 5.4% of the 2,026 food and beverage advertisements approved for use on TV were deemed suitable to run in children’s programming time (and those that were approved included a campaign promoting the consumption of fresh fruit and vegetables). That was down from 89.5% in the year before the codes for children’s advertising were introduced.

That’s a massive step forward and I challenge any public health academic to say otherwise.

So, while there may be a perception by some that there is regular advertising targeted at children, these figures speak for themselves. It’s a voluntary model that works very well. I also cannot think of any food campaigns in recent times that have been aimed at children, and when I’ve asked critics for specific examples they’ve drawn a blank, too. The reality is that if there had been any breaches of the ASA Codes then pro-regulation campaigners would have made high-profile complaints.

There’s a big gap between activists’ rhetoric and real life. Recently, one health researcher described the marketing of food to children as "immoral" (again, no specific New Zealand examples), and a journalist asked me for a comment.

I said such a claim was over the top and bordering on hysterical. I just don’t think Kiwi parents would see historic campaign creations such as The Milky Bar Kid or Cookie Bear as immoral, even though campaigns like these would not make it to air today because of adherence to the ASA Codes.  Readers may remember that some health academics made similar ridiculous comments when one company put Yogi Bear stickers on apples – and they weren’t happy with Dora the Explorer or SpongeBob plain yoghurt, either!

Similarly, some health academics have also raised concerns around the type of packaging on products for children, such as those in the “treats” or “occasional” categories, as if somehow the colour and pictures were part of some plot.

The fact is that treat foods like confectionery and ice-creams are made to be fun and enjoyable. It’s important that they are eaten in moderation and not every day. Of course, that’s the message responsible parents drum into their children. Some campaigners even believe that having cartoons and sports people on cereal boxes is also a bad thing, even those with 4 and 5 health star ratings. I think most New Zealanders would agree that anything that helps to encourage children to eat a healthy breakfast is a good thing.