The campaign to curb the promotion of unhealthy food has not only the strident claims of  “nanny state” to counter.  There are also the “health washing” 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 Council’s Clare Hughes and Wendy Watson, highlight how the food companies can continue to promote their products into our children’s 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 a healthy sandwich.

And cinnamon donuts apparently don’t 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,  the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative that applies to food products, and Quick Service Restaurant Industry Initiative that applies to fast food  ‘have ensured access to a best practice model for complaint resolution’.

Yet since these initiatives were introduced in 2009 we have seen only minor, yet strategic changes to food in ads on TV which ensure  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 there’s often a healthy lunchbox in view.


Last year, complaints about advertisements for kids snacks such as Mamee noodles, Arnott’s Big Tedz biscuits and Kellogg’s 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 weren’t just advertising the brands’ salty, sugary or fatty snacks, but a healthy balanced diet.

By the industries’ logic they’re practically community service announcements for healthy eating.

Sounds like ‘health washing’ to me

But there’s 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 children’s snacks now add a bit of physical activity to ensure they are ‘promoting a healthy lifestyle’.

Complaints about the promotion of Arnott’s Big Tedz biscuits and YoGo dairy desserts were dismissed because they promoted physical activity and a healthy lifestyle.

How?   Well the Arnott’s ad showed Big Tedz dancing and YoGorilla (the YoGo mascot) was wearing sports gear. As Kellogg’s explained “children ‘squabbling’ for the (small) piece of the LCMs bar is depicted as an energetic physical activity”.

Another way advertisers  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 “with only 4-5 lollies on the table in front of them” and similarly an Oreos ad featuring two children and a plate of three Oreo cookies shows “a biscuit for each child and then ideally one to share” (Advertising Standards Board).

Rise of food ‘advergames’

While TV ads are nothing new we are now seeing the rise of the ‘advergame’ 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 not actually see food eaten.

For example, referring to their Donut king website, the advertiser said “the animated mouth is in fact moving away from the donuts
rather than towards them”.

Distributor  Stuart Alexander in defending the Chupa Chups game app claimed “although the character collects numerous quantities of lollipops… he is never actually seen to eat them”.

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 children’s fast food meal featuring a child playing with dinosaurs amongst fried chicken, chips and salad was dismissed because the ASB considered it “would be attractive to children but that the images of the product and the overall theme were directed at adults”.

Getting around pester power

And parents needn’t bother complaining that an ad for unhealthy foods featuring children creates pester power.

While the ASB acknowledged that the Oreos biscuit ad featuring a brother and sister having an after-school snack of Oreo biscuits, “was an activity that many children would relate to”, it nonetheless dismissed the complaint claiming it was “adult in theme and not primarily directed to children but rather to the main grocery buyer”.

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 “the product is enjoyed by many adult consumers including famous celebrities such as MadonnaDavid Beckham, Kirsty Alley and the 1970’s TV character Kojak.”

The Board also said of the Donut King website “although the ‘Kids Corner’ of the website is targeted to children, donuts themselves are not targeted to and of principal appeal to children.”

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 taking seriously their responsibility to be ‘part of the solution’ to childhood obesity in Australia.

They 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 ‘commitment to responsible advertising and marketing of food and beverages to children’ that the initiatives are deemed to be.

Instead it’s further evidence that neither industry can be relied on to effectively restrict children’s 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 children’s health.

Clare Hughes is Nutrition Program Manager and Wendy Watson, Nutrition Project Officer at Cancer Council NSW.


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