Clampdown on marketing to British children through TV advertising is not enough to protect them, says WHO report
Food companies are accused on Tuesday by the World Health Organisation, the public health arm of the UN, of finding ways to bypass the rules on advertising unhealthy products to children and fuelling the obesity epidemic.
Attempts by the authorities in Britain to clamp down on marketing to children through television advertising are not enough to protect them, a major report by the WHO says. There are tough rules on advertising during children’s TV programmes but not on shows such as ITV1′s Britain’s Got Talent and The X Factor, which research shows are widely watched by younger viewers.
Increasingly, food companies are also targeting children through computer games, mobile phones and social networks such as Facebook.
The WHO report calls for tighter regulation across the whole of Europe of the marketing to children of foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
“Millions of children across the region are being subjected to unacceptable marketing practices,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, regional director of WHO Europe. “Policy simply must catch up and address the reality of an obese childhood in the 21st century.
“Children are surrounded by adverts urging them to consume high fat, high sugar, high salt foods, even when they are in places where they should be protected, such as schools and sports facilities.”
Britain has done more than some other European countries to guard children against advertising for unhealthy food, snacks and sweets, says the report, but it is not one of the six countries – Denmark, France, Norway, Slovenia, Spain and Sweden – that have fully implemented a European code on restricting marketing to children. There are, says the report, gaps and weaknesses in the UK regulations.
There are strict rules to prevent foods with high salt, fat and sugar content being advertised on TV during children’s programmes, and the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom, said this reduced children’s exposure to advertising for crisps, sugary drinks, fried chicken nuggets and the like by 37% between 2005 and 2009. But, says the report, there has been an overall increase in advertising for junk foods at other times of the day “and children continued to be exposed to HFSS (high fat, salt and sugar foods) advertising, especially during TV programmes between 6pm and 10.30pm”.
This is what is called family viewing rather than children’s TV.
According to the Children’s Food Campaign, the TV programme most watched by four- to 15-year-olds is Britain’s Got Talent, which airs from 8pm to 9pm, with more than 1 million child viewers. Next most watched by children are The X Factor and I’m a Celebrity. Commercials running during Britain’s Got Talent typically include ones for fizzy drinks and chocolate.
The report says: “Overall these data suggest that despite full implementation of the regulation, children in the UK appear to be exposed to just as much food advertising as before full regulation.”
Food companies are increasingly using the internet and mobile phones to interact with children. Online advertising overtook TV advertising in the UK in 2009. Data from 2011 shows that 65% of children aged between five and seven in the UK used the internet on computers in their home, which rose to 85% of children between eight and 11.
Advertisers are increasingly using social media sites such as Facebook and messaging services, which are popular with young people, says the report. Food companies have developed their own websites which are attractive to children, inviting them to become fans of the brand. There are no restrictions on the use of cartoon characters owned by a company to promote the products.
“Advergames” are increasingly popular, too. “Most major food companies have developed game-playing and fantasy video sites for young children,” says the report. A Chewits site, for example, has an animated dinosaur seeking out sweets. Leaf International, which owns Chewit’s, has said other parts of the website contain information on how the sweets should be consumed responsibly.
“Some sites offer videos or advertisements which, in countries such as Norway, Sweden and the UK, might be considered to be breaking the local regulations if the same advertisement were to be shown during children’s TV,” says the report.
Many children have mobile phones – one in eight aged eight to 11 and one in 50 aged five to seven in the UK own a smartphone.
Vending machines in schools are not allowed to contain junk food, but there are no restrictions on them in sports centres and other places children go, says the report. Food companies are allowed to sponsor events, such as the children’s Amateur Swimming Association awards by Kellogg’s and the Olympics, where Coca-Cola and McDonald’s were big sponsors.
The British Heart Foundation said junk food marketing to children was a major concern. “Even if there’s no junk food in your kitchen cupboards, you can guarantee unhealthy products are finding their way into your home,” said Simon Gillespie, the BHF’s chief executive.
“Every day, children are faced with adverts for foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt – through the TV, computer, their smartphone or in print.
“Restricting TV advertising has helped to limit ads on kids’ programmes, but some of the shows most watched by children, such as the X-Factor, are still fair game. Weak online regulation also offers retailers loopholes to reach children through ‘advergames’, downloads and competitions.
“As it stands, nearly one in three children in the UK are classed as overweight or obese. We desperately need a system that protects our children from sophisticated marketing campaigns, and helps parents to close the door on junk food advertising.”
The Advertising Association, a trade body, said: “Despite advertising’s minimal role, there are strict content rules across all media in the UK to ensure food ads don’t encourage unhealthy lifestyles – with an extra layer of protection for children. Effective self-regulation and a responsible industry will play important parts in helping to tackle obesity.”
A Kellogg’s spokesperson said it was completely aware of the impact of its business, “which is why [we] are responsible about how we market our products, particularly to kids in the UK.
“In fact, we think we’ve got a good story to tell. So, we have no kid-targeted websites for Coco Pops or Frosties and our Facebook pages are locked to anyone below 16 years old. And, our on-pack promotions are for things like free adult tickets to Alton Towers.”
He added: “When you do see our advertising on kids TV, it is there because the products it is promoting meet the very strict regulations about what food can be advertised to children.”
The company says that its partnership with the Amateur Swimming Association is one involving the corporate brand, Kellogg’s, and there is no branding for products such as Coco Pops.
McDonalds reacted to concerns about involvement with the Olympics by insisting sponsorship was essential to the successful staging of the Games, while also announcing plans to launch campaigns focused on “activity toys” and vouchers for sports sessions.
A Coca-Cola spokesperson said the company “takes seriously its commitment to market responsibly across the globe, across all advertising media, and across all of our beverages”. “Our worldwide responsible marketing policy states that we do not target any of our marketing messages on TV, radio, internet, mobile phone and product placement mediums where children under 12 make up more than 35% of the audience.
“Our sponsorship of sporting events highlights our commitment to making a positive difference in all the communities we serve. We care about people’s well-being and want to make a positive difference in their lives, both physically and emotionally. We also aspire to help people lead active healthy lifestyles through the beverage options we produce, the nutritional information we provide and our support of programs that encourage active, healthy living.We sponsor more than 280 physical activity and nutrition education programs in more than 115 countries. We are also the longest, continuous standing partner of one of the largest sports platforms in the world, the Olympic Games – proof of our commitment to using the power of our brands to encourage more people to become active through sport.”
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