For the first time in history, Australian children could live shorter lives than their parents. The reason? High rates of excess weight and obesity.
Despite mounting evidence that junk food marketing is a big part of the problem, a new report to be released today reveals that Australian governments are failing to step in and protect our children.
In fact, Australia’s already weak system of self-regulation to protect children from unhealthy food marketing – including advertisements on TV, radio and digital platforms – has gone backwards.
Self-regulation: nothing but a charade
The new Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) report, End the Charade!, shows how the self-regulation of junk food marketing in Australia is simply not working.
Profit-hungry food advertisers exploit the loopholes that exist in already weak codes and use sneaky tactics so they can bombard children with junk food advertising.
The Australian Food and Grocery Council’s (AFGC) codes, known as the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative (RCMI) and the Quick Service Restaurant Initiative (QSRI), are “an industry framework to make sure only healthier products are promoted directly to children”.
Ironically, signing up to these codes allows big food companies to appear socially responsible – even when their sole motivation is maximising profit, at the expense of children’s health.
The report found that since an initial investigation by the OPC in 2012 the system has been relaxed even further. Examples include:
- A looser definition of healthy food that fails to stop Kellogg’s categorising of Coco Pops as a “healthier dietary choice” and therefore appropriate for marketing to children.
- A weakened interpretation of advertising “directly targeted to children” allowing Nestle to use fairytale imagery to advertise Wonka Cookie Creamery chocolate, arguing it was “designed to appeal to an adult’s sense of nostalgia for childhood”.
- A slow and complex system in which the Advertising Standards Board failed to consider a complaint about Peter’s “Zombie Guts” and “Zombie Snot” icy-poles because the ad campaign had ended by the time it received the complaint.
Food manufacturers' influence extends well beyond individual advertisements. It relies on huge volumes and placement within a range of platforms, such as websites, mobile phone apps, interactive games, billboards at bus stops and promotions in supermarkets. This ensures junk food advertising is wallpaper in our children’s lives.
Given that around 40% of what Australian school-aged children eat is unhealthy food, the millions of dollars companies spend to create demand for their products is a marketing success and public health failure.
Advertising influences food choices, now and in future
Extensive research has found that unhealthy food advertising influences what children want to eat and what they do eat. This also creates pester power and undermines efforts by parents, schools and communities to encourage healthy habits.
Children are vulnerable consumers and are likely to have reduced capacity to understand the commercial and persuasive intent behind advertising messages. In targeting children through fun advertisements and engaging characters, food companies are able to build positive brand associations that can stay with them throughout their adult life.
Restricting junk food marketing to children is acknowledged by peak health bodies including the World Health Organisation (WHO) as an important and necessary step to help improve children’s diets and slow obesity rates in Australia.
Government-led regulation urgently needed
Research from here and overseas has shown that self-regulation of unhealthy food marketing is ineffective to reduce the amount of food advertising and promotion that children see. To reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food marketing, we urgently need government-led action.
As a first step, the Australian Communications and Media Authority should monitor and measure children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising on television.
The federal government should then introduce comprehensive regulations or, at the very least, instruct broadcasting, advertising and food industries on how to strengthen their existing approaches.
Amendments should also be made to the advertising codes or regulations to:
Clearly define key terms, including “unhealthy food”, “unhealthy food marketing”, “children” and “directed to children”
Consistently and transparently define “unhealthy food” in accordance with government and scientific guidelines
Expand their scope to apply to all forms, media and locations of marketing of unhealthy food (including brand marketing) that is directed to, or appeals to children
Restrict all unhealthy food marketing on television during times when large numbers of children are likely to be watching (weekdays 6–9am and 4–9pm, and weekends and school holidays 6am–12pm and 4–9pm)
Ensure compliance is regularly monitored.
The food and advertising industries seem primarily motivated to create an appearance of corporate social responsibility and ward off tighter government regulation. Only through significant improvements led by government will children be protected from predatory junk food marketers exploiting their vulnerabilities.
Industry has had a chance to show that they can act responsibly and our scrutiny has shown they have failed miserably. Now government leadership is necessary to support parents and put children’s health first.
Jane Martin does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor