The pervasiveness of food-marketing techniques to kids is striking. It’s almost impossible to avoid. Packaging is covered in games and puzzles … then there’s the cartoon and other licensed characters … blockbuster movie tie-ins … gifts and collectibles … and even apps.

Parents aren’t left out either: health claims abound about added vitamins, folate and whatever else the industry can dream up.

One thing’s for sure, manufacturers wouldn’t be doing this blitzkrieg of promotional temptations if they weren’t successful.

Does it matter?

Children are a vulnerable audience. Generally children younger than 4 see ads as entertainment, children under 8 can’t recognise the purpose of advertising, and between 10 and 12 years the persuasive intent is understood but not sales tactics. So it’s important there are regulations to protect them.

Action to reduce unhealthy food marketing to children here is almost non-existent.
Action to reduce unhealthy food marketing to children here is almost non-existent.

There’s evidence that food marketing influences children’s eating habits – and this is happening when food preferences are being formed. Food marketing is also considered a significant contributor to childhood obesity, which is an increasing problem: the 2011/12 New Zealand Health Survey found 21 percent of children aged 2 to 14 were overweight and a further 10 percent (up from 8 percent in 2006/07) were obese. That’s around 91,000 obese children in New Zealand.

Marketing food to children is such a concern that in 2010 the World Health Organization (WHO) published recommendations on marketing food and non-alcoholic beverages to children. They call for government-led policy on a global scale to reduce the impact on children of marketing foods high in saturated fat, trans fats, free sugars and salt.

Despite this evidence, action to reduce unhealthy food marketing to children here is almost non-existent. Professor of Population Nutrition and Global Health at the University of Auckland, Boyd Swinburn, thinks the system does little to protect children: “It’s extraordinary that since this issue was first raised nearly 20 years ago governments have been doing nothing to protect children from the marketing of food directly to children. They are also failing to support parents by allowing these persuasive techniques to be so widespread.”

Our situation

Marketing here is mainly “self-regulated” by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). All ads for food and beverages which influence children – that means ads on TV, print, radio, advertiser websites and social media sites – should adhere to the ASA Children’s Code for Advertising Food 2010 and also its Code for Advertising to Children.

The Children’s Code for Advertising Food 2010 says food ads shouldn’t undermine the food and nutrition policies of the Ministry of Health or the health and wellbeing of children. The code also has guidelines for promoting competitions and using characters or people well-known to children.

All TV ads require pre-approval by the Commercial Approvals Bureau, which assesses them against the ASA codes. Free-to-air TV advertising is also subject to ThinkTV’s “Getting it Right for Children” voluntary code. No advertising is allowed during pre-school programmes and there’s restricted advertising during school-age programming times. Food can only be advertised if it’s considered “healthy” according to the Children’s Food (CF) Classification System or the Food Standards Australia New Zealand nutrient profiling system.

But there are no regulations relating to packaging.

System limitations

Our self-regulatory system has its critics. Dr Gabrielle Jenkin, from the Health Promotion and Policy Research Unit at the University of Otago, told us that ThinkTV restrictions around unhealthy food marketing to children were only applied in a limited timeslot around so-called children’s programmes – they weren’t applied during children’s peak viewing times in the evening.

Dr Jenkin also has other concerns. “The system is reactive and not proactive – most ads aren’t scrutinised until there’s been a complaint about it. Also parents don’t know the codes exist. Let alone how to make a complaint.”

A study published by the University of Otago in 2012 concluded the current system failed to adequately protect children’s rights to health. Concerns included partial, unjustified and inconsistent decision-making by the ASA Complaints Board.

Hilary Souter, CEO of ASA, disagrees. She believes the current system absolutely protects children. “The ASA codes relating to children have successfully altered the tone of ads and their placement. Since the codes were revised in 2010 there’s a higher level of awareness from companies about what’s appropriate, and as a result there’s been fewer complaints.” She agrees the system is reactive, because it’s complaint-based, but says the ASA encourages people to make a complaint if they think a breach has occurred.

The situation overseas

Internationally, the regulation of food marketing to children ranges from statutory regulations to voluntary self-regulatory initiatives led by industry. Quebec has the strongest restrictions on advertising: it bans all forms of marketing (not just food) to children under 13. Professor Swinburn believes this is the “gold standard” approach because it protects children from the advertising of all products.

In 2007 the UK introduced statutory regulations. These prohibit advertising high-fat, high-sugar and high-salt foods during children’s programmes and during programmes with a high proportion of children in the audience. Press, poster and online marketing are covered by a self-regulatory code. A new industry code is also being drawn up by the UK’s Department of Health. This will look at other marketing tactics such as on-pack marketing and, in particular, the use of licensed and brand characters.

Across the Tasman there’s a mixture of government regulation and voluntary self-regulation. Advertising to children on television is subject to a “co-regulatory” system and for other media there are several voluntary initiatives in place. (Co-regulation is a self-regulatory approach within a legislative framework.)

The Australian Food and Grocery Council has a Responsible Marketing to Children initiative which provides its member companies with a framework for preparing their own action plans. But a study published in the Health Promotion Journal of Australia in December 2010 concluded the principles of the initiative were poorly designed and that companies varied greatly in their interpretation of the framework.

Time for a change?

New Zealand public health organisations are lobbying for change. The Heart Foundation supports co-regulation believing this will ensure the control of advertising’s content and also its volume, timing, repetitiveness, placement, use of persuasive techniques, and coordination across different media. Agencies for Nutrition Action (ANA) see co-regulation – supported by independent monitoring and evaluation – as a first step in the right direction for regulating food and beverage marketing. ANA also sees this approach incorporating product packaging – currently excluded from regulatory oversight.

Not surprisingly, the ASA doesn’t support co-regulation: “With co-regulation, there’s another layer around how you make a complaint, which is likely to result in a complaints process that is more complex and takes longer. With our system, if issues or loopholes are identified they can be closed without changing legislation,” says CEO Hilary Souter.

Dr Jenkin agrees co-regulation isn’t really working in Australia. But she believes it’s possibly better than the system we have.

Our view

  • There’s evidence food marketing makes children want to eat unhealthy foods and is contributing to the obesity epidemic. It’s time the government took notice of the WHO recommendations and acted to protect our children. They’re vulnerable.
  • Regulation needs to consider all forms of marketing, including the promotional tactics used on packaging.

Report by Belinda Allan.