Ten years on is the food industry solution working to protect children from junk food marketing?

Ten years on from the introduction of self-regulation junk foods continue to be advertised to children. 

The food industry’s self-regulatory response to protect children from food marketing was implemented at the start of 2009. At the Food Futures conference in Brisbane, Wendy Watson has presented on what that means to the amount of junk food marketing Australian children see.

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 there is still a similar rate of advertising of unhealthy foods on Sydney TV, at times when children watch, as there was when monitoring by Sydney University academics began in 2006.

Applicability of the existing initiatives to protect children from advertising on the internet, social media and via online interactive games is thwarted by clauses that require the audience to be 35% children.  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 being dismissed by the Ad Standards, the agency established by the industry to consider complaints against the self-regulatory initiatives, highlights the loopholes within these initiatives which hinder true protection of children. One of the criteria used in assessment is that ads need to be “primarily” directed to children. That’s easy to sidestep.  Put a mum in the ad along with the child sitting enjoying a nugget meal that includes the latest movie themed toy and that makes the ad “targeted to the parent”.  Or ensure the 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?  Is there a junk food branded game with brightly coloured cartoon characters that’s so simple a young child could enjoy it or a mum could play it while multitasking?  Guess what, it’s said to be targeted at busy mum's not children.  There are buses travelling around carrying a giant billboard with pictures of fruit above a packet of lollies. The advertiser says, kids look away this is aimed at 18-39 year olds and they know that the picture of fruit is merely an artistic representation of the flavouring and does not suggest fruit is an ingredient. 

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 Initiatives work to protect children.  We know that junk food marketing influences children’s preferences and what they eat. The COAG 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.


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