Ten years on: is the food industry solution working to protect children from junk food marketing?
Junk foods continue to be advertised to children, ten years on from the introduction of industry codes.
The food industry’s self-regulatory response to protect children from food marketing was implemented at the start of 2009. While both food industry initiatives, the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative (RCMI) and the Quick Service Restaurant Initiative, were updated in 2014, very little has changed since they were first introduced. CCNSW research showed that the rate of advertising of unhealthy foods on Sydney TV — at times when children watch — is similar to when monitoring by Sydney University academics began in 2006.
Clauses that require the audience to be 35% children make it difficult to protect children from advertising on the internet, social media and via online interactive games. Advertising on billboards and public transport also continues unhindered, in part due to that same requirement. Some media is not covered by the initiatives, including billboards in the case of the RCMI, and for both initiatives sports sponsorship, packaging and point of sale advertising.
Closer scrutiny of the reasoning behind complaints dismissed by Ad Standards — the agency established by the industry to consider complaints against the codes — highlights the loopholes in these codes that hinder true protection of children. For example, ads need to be “primarily” directed to children. That’s easy to sidestep. Put a mum in the ad along with the child, enjoying a nugget meal that includes the latest movie themed toy, and that makes the ad “targeted” to the parent. Or ensure the whole family is sitting around the table or there are a group of friends eager to share the large bucket of fried food the child is carrying. Maybe include the words “treat your family”. Another often used excuse to dismiss child-like references to favourite junk foods is to create a sense of nostalgia for adults. When is an ad featuring a child enjoying junk food, or with a catchy jingle, talking to an adult about nostalgia and when is it advertising to children? If these ads would be appealing to children as well as adults as is often the reasoning used, then they are indeed going to influence children. And doesn’t protecting children mean they should not be appealing to children? This demonstrates how poorly the codes work to protect children.
We know that junk food marketing influences children’s preferences and what they eat. The health ministers have agreed upon a simple criteria to define junk food, lets use it. It’s time, after 10 years, to commit to protecting children from junk food marketing by using regulation that takes into account both the power of advertising and the exposure of kids to it. It’s time we stopped pretending the food industry solution is working in favour of protecting children.