Study: Industry Codes are not the solution to protect children from unhealthy food ads
Advertisers are bombarding our kids with unhealthy food ads and the only protection for them is flimsy Codes written by the food and advertising industry themselves.
Children’s exposure to high levels of unhealthy food marketing affects the food and drinks that they like, ask for, buy, and consume.
Except for ‘C’ and ‘P’ rated TV programs that are specifically made for children and pre-schoolers, where advertising is regulated or prohibited, there is no other regulation to protect children from being bombarded with unhealthy food advertisements. To deflect the need for anything more effective in reducing kids’ exposure to junk food ads the food and advertising industries have created voluntary Codes. These Codes may seem like they have it covered when in fact they have such large loopholes they will do little to protect children from unhealthy food advertising.
Underpinning these Codes is a process where the community can make complaints to Ad Standards about offending advertisement. Our study looked at all the complaints considered from 2015 to 2020 and analysed the Ad Standards responses. We found many complaints were dismissed because the ads weren’t deemed to be ‘primarily directed to children’ because -according to the advertiser – their child-friendly themes were intended to be nostalgic to adults too. For example, a complaint about a Kellogg’s Coco Pops ad was dismissed because Ad Standards said the phrase ‘Just like a white chocolate milkshake only crunchy’ would be of appeal to children, but also nostalgic for many adult grocery buyers who had grown up with a similar catch phrase in ads for Kellogg’s Coco Pops.
The Codes fail to protect children from exposure to unhealthy ads with other loopholes that require children to be a large proportion of the audience meaning thousands of children could still be exposed through ads on school buses, at train stations, online and in popular TV shows because of a larger adult audience.
Of the 119 complaints lodged over the 6-year study period, only 14 were upheld. Despite complainants believing these advertisements expose children to unhealthy food advertising, the loopholes in the Codes allow them to be advertised.
Robust, clear, and evidence-based mandatory standards are the most effective way to restrict marketing aimed at children and adequately protect them from the influence of unhealthy food marketing. While the November release of a new Food and Beverage Marketing Code by the AANA might be pitched to government as a solution, the loopholes this study have highlighted show governments should be very cautious of industry solutions.
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Watson W L, Pagotto A, Richmond K, Hughes C. 2021. Monitoring complaints about food marketing to children under the industry Codes 2015-20: a qualitative analysis. Australia New Zealand Journal of Public Health doi 10.1111/1753-6405.13174