Advertising food: marketers have children, too

15 October 2016

By Katherine Rich

In the debate about advertising and children there is a cavernous gap between what university academics imagine our FMCG marketers do all day and what actually happens.

Last year, public health campaigners described New Zealand marketing practices as “powerful, pervasive and predatory”, while others use phrases such as “enormous, cunning and deceptive marketing” – all creating the impression that Marketing Managers sit in their offices with nothing but sinister intent. As Chief Executive of the Food and Grocery Council, I’ve met the who’s who of food production over the past eight years and nothing could be further from the truth.

Academic debate often refers to the men and women in our food companies in pejorative phrases such as “Big Food”, “Big Soda” and the phrase campaigners floated but which failed to catch on, “Big Snack”.  This language has all the hallmarks of a major conspiracy theory.

The reality is that our food industry made up of mainly small to medium-size companies, run by people with their own families who are active in their local communities, and who are just as concerned about people getting fatter as others are. Contrary to what public health campaigners would have everyone believe, these people don’t sit around in their offices thinking “how can I make people fatter”. They are more likely to be thinking “what more can I do to help others make healthier choices?”

Many groups and individuals made submissions to the current Advertising Standards Authority review of its codes that are relevant to children. The self-regulatory approach to overseeing advertising has worked well, but after five years of the Children’s Code for Advertising Food it was timely to see if improvements could be made.

Commentators wishing for regulation rather than a self-regulatory approach (which, by the way, doesn’t cost taxpayers a cent) are often completely unaware how strict the current code is. Some examples:

  • advertisements for treat food, snacks or fast food should not encourage children to consume them in excess
  • advertisements for foods high in sugar should not claim to be “low fat” or “fat-free” which could mislead children to believe the food is low in energy or beneficial to health; likewise, advertisements for food high in fat should not claim to be “low in sugar” or “sugar-free”
  • people or characters known to children should not be used to endorse food high in fat, salt and/or sugar
  • advertisements should take into account the maturity of the intended audience.

Many of the comments by public health campaigners indicate they don’t know how much the advertising environment has improved over the past few years, as evidenced by the old statistics they use to describe the current media environment.  An example of this are recent papers from Auckland University which state that 66 per cent of advertising during children’s after-school viewing is for unhealthy food. They cite a research paper using data from 2007, when television ads were “videotaped” and counted – a hint of the age of the data! The paper was a useful contribution at the time, but continuing to quote it nine years later is misleading.  Another example is a paper on advertising in magazines, where the fine print reveals academics were counting Woman’s Day, Women’s Weekly and even Sky Television’s Skywatch as children’s media.

There has been enormous change in advertising practices, from the removal of advertising during pre-school shows and changes to children’s programming, to the introduction of food advertising codes and the tightening of any advertising to children, full-stop.

Recently I surveyed all FGC members and found they either did not target advertising to children at all, or if they did it was for events or products that were beneficial to children and enjoyed by them, eg Weet-Bix and the Sanitarium Tryathlon. I did not find any examples of companies that did not adhere to all aspects of the codes, or that even came close.

If food marketers do anything it’s to make sure advertising content and placement complies with the codes. Public health campaigners would do well to remember that marketers have children, too.

(As published in FMCG Business magazine, October 2016)