The campaign to curb the promotion of unhealthy food has not only the strident claims of Â ânanny stateâ to counter. Â There are also the “health washingâ tactics of the food industry, pushing high sugar, high fat and high salt products to children and their parents.
These ploys range from the fatuous to the fanciful, but they pass the regulatory code, despite all the political handwringing over obesity.
Here the NSW Cancer Councilâs Clare Hughes and Wendy Watson, highlight how the food companies can continue to promote their products into our childrenâs lunchboxes.
Health washing of ads: healthy lunchboxes and kids dancing
Chocolate biscuits can be advertised to kids as long as there are kids dancing in the ad.
Commercials for sugary snack bars are also acceptable provided they are strategically placed in a lunch box alongside an apple and aÂ healthy sandwich.
And cinnamon donuts apparently donât appeal to kids. This appeared to be the case when we examined the 2012 case reports on complaints to the advertising agency responsible for policing food marketing to children.
Since 2009 food marketing to children has primarily come under self-regulatory initiatives implemented by the food and advertising
industries with complaints considered by the agency, the Advertising Standards Board.
According to the Australian Food and Grocery Council, Â the Responsible Childrenâs Marketing Initiative that applies to food products, and Quick Service Restaurant Industry InitiativeÂ that applies to fast food Â âhave ensured access to a best practice model for complaint resolutionâ.
Yet since these initiatives were introduced in 2009 we have seen only minor, yet strategic changes to food in ads on TV which ensure Â that manufacturers are complying with their own industry codes, but not losing marketing opportunities by ending their promotions to children.
For example, advertisements still feature kids, only now thereâs often a healthy lunchbox in view.
Last year, complaints about advertisements for kids snacks such as Mamee noodles, Arnottâs Big Tedz biscuits and Kelloggâs LCM bars were rejected on the basis that by featuring a shot of a lunch box that includes healthier foods like fruit, carrot sticks and sandwiches means that these ads werenât just advertising the brandsâ salty, sugary or fatty snacks, but a healthy balanced diet.
By the industriesâ logic theyâre practically community service announcements for healthy eating.
Sounds like âhealthÂ washingâ to me
But thereâs more. We all know that to keep kids healthy not only do they need to eat a balanced diet, they also need to be active.
Advertisers of childrenâs snacks now add a bit of physical activity to ensure they are âpromoting a healthy lifestyleâ.
Complaints about the promotion of Arnottâs Big Tedz biscuits and YoGo dairy desserts were dismissed because they promoted physical activity and a healthy lifestyle.
How? Â Â Well the Arnottâs ad showed Big Tedz dancing and YoGorilla (the YoGo mascot) was wearing sports gear. As Kelloggâs explained âchildren âsquabblingâ for the (small) piece of the LCMs bar is depicted as an energetic physical activityâ.
Another way advertisers Â justify promoting things like cookies and lollies in shows that are popular with children is to demonstrate that the adsdo not promote overconsumption.
For example, in defending a complaint about an add that clearly depicted children eating Haribo lollies, Haribo argued that the ad
shows children sitting âwith only 4-5 lollies on the table in front of themâ and similarly an Oreos ad featuring two children and a plate of three Oreo cookies shows âa biscuit for each child and then ideally one to shareâ (Advertising Standards Board).
Rise of food âadvergamesâ
While TV ads are nothing new we are now seeing the rise of the âadvergameâ as food companies dive into new technologies to promote their foods to children through branded games featuring products and company mascots.
Advertisers have defended complaints about this new wave of junk food marketing claiming that when playing the game children do notÂ actually see food eaten.
For example, referring to their Donut king website, the advertiser said âthe animated mouth is in fact moving away from the donuts
rather than towards themâ.
Distributor Â Stuart Alexander in defending the Chupa Chups game app claimed âalthough the character collects numerous quantities of lollipopsâŚ he is never actually seen to eat themâ.
The existing regulations require ads to be primarily directed to children to be considered in breach of the regulations.
Of course most ads will appeal to a broader audience or advertisers will use this reasoning to defend advertising complaints.
A Nandos TV ad for a childrenâs fast food meal featuring a child playing with dinosaurs amongst fried chicken, chips and salad was dismissed because the ASB considered it âwould be attractive to children but that the images of the product and the overall theme were directed at adultsâ.
Getting around pesterÂ power
And parents neednât bother complaining that an ad for unhealthy foods featuring children createsÂ pester power.
While the ASB acknowledged that the Oreos biscuit ad featuring a brother and sister having an after-school snack of Oreo biscuits, âwasÂ an activity that many children would relate toâ, it nonetheless dismissed the complaint claiming it was âadult in theme and not primarily directed to children but rather to the main grocery buyerâ.
In response to the complaint about the Chupa Chups gaming app, distributor Stuart Alexander said the lollipops were not of principal appeal to children because âthe product is enjoyed by many adult consumers including famous celebrities such as Madonna,Â David Beckham, Kirsty Alley and the 1970âs TV character Kojak.â
The Board also said of the Donut King website âalthough the âKids Cornerâ of the website is targeted to children, donuts themselves are not targeted to and of principal appeal to children.â
These examples may seem amusing but they demonstrate the gaping loopholes in the self-regulatory approaches to restricting junk food marketing to children.
Food and advertising industry organisations argue that industry commitment to these initiatives is evidence that companies are takingÂ seriously their responsibility to be âpart of the solutionâ to childhood obesity in Australia.
TheyÂ claim that these voluntary initiatives have been effective in reducing food marketing to children.
Laughable loopholes: time for government action
But these judgements by the body responsible for policing these codes, and the response from the food companies themselves, tell a
different story entirely.
One where exploiting loopholes, laughable excuses and fanciful spin show that the food and advertising industries are looking for every defence imaginable to ensure that their products and advertisements can continue to be promoted to children.
This hardly depicts a true âcommitment to responsible advertising and marketing of food and beverages to childrenâ that the initiatives are deemed to be.
Instead itâs further evidence that neither industry can be relied on to effectively restrict childrenâs exposure to advertisements for unhealthy foods.
Industry has had its chance to prove it can be trusted. We now need governments to step up and take this issue seriously, by introducing measures that really are in the best interest of childrenâs health.
Clare Hughes is Nutrition Program Manager and Wendy Watson, Nutrition Project Officer at CancerÂ Council NSW.