- 1 Key messages
- 2 Recommendations
- 3 Background
- 4 Policy context for food marketing to children
- 5 Children's exposure to food marketing
- 6 Limited impact of self-regulatory initiatives
- 7 Problems with self-regulatory initiatives
- 8 Community support for food marketing regulation
- 9 Notes
- 10 Position statement details
- 11 References
Cancer Council believes reform of food marketing regulations is a priority public health goal. Children should be protected from the potential harms of food marketing and parents should be able to raise their children in an environment that is conducive to the development of healthy eating practices.
To better protect children from unhealthy food marketing, Cancer Council recommends that Government develop a specific food marketing policy framework and embed this in statutory regulation. This government regulation should:
Cancer Council supports government regulation of food advertising to children, as industry self-regulation of food marketing has not adequately addressed children's high level of exposure to unhealthy food advertising or the persuasive marketing techniques commonly used by food companies to target children.
Obesity is a risk factor for cancers of the oesophagus, pancreas, bowel, endometrium, kidney and breast (postmenopausal women only).
Childhood obesity has reached high levels in Australia, with almost a quarter of all children and adolescents either overweight or obese. A high proportion of overweight children will go on to be overweight in adulthood, so preventing weight gain in children is important.
The 2007 Australian National Children’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Survey found sugars contributed 22-26% and saturated fat contributed 13-14% of children’s daily energy, exceeding recommendations in both cases. Energy-dense nutrient-poor foods or foods that are high in kilojoules but offer little nutritional value make up over a third of children’s daily energy intake. These foods that include cakes, biscuits, fast foods and confectionery are considered discretionary foods, that should only be included sometimes in a healthy diet and in small amounts.
The factors contributing to childhood overweight and obesity are multifaceted and include a combination of sociological, environmental and genetic influences. There is substantial and consistent evidence that the promotion of energy-dense nutrient-poor foods is a key modifiable risk factor contributing to the 'obesogenic' or obesity promoting environment.
A recent summary of the systematic reviews of the evidence synthesises almost 40 years of evidence on the influence and effect of food marketing to children. It clearly demonstrates that food promotion affects food purchases and influences food choices at category and brand level. There is modest evidence that food promotion influences children's nutrition knowledge, food preferences, the food they eat and ultimately impacts on their health.
Table 1. Summary of the evidence of the effect of food marketing on children
|Research question||Weight of evidence|
|Effects on food purchases||Strong|
|Effects on category sales and/or brand switching||Strong|
|Effects on food knowledge||Modest|
|Effects on food preferences||Modest|
|Effects on food consumption||Modest|
|Effects on diet-related health||Modest|
|Extent relative to other influences||Modest|
Adapted from Cairns et al. 2013.
These findings are concerning as advertised foods are typically inconsistent with dietary recommendations, with the most commonly advertised foods being for energy-dense, nutrient-poor foods such as pre-sugared breakfast cereals, savoury snacks, fast food, confectionery and soft drinks.
Further, there is substantial evidence from psychological research that children are highly vulnerable to advertising and marketing, as they lack the necessary cognitive skills and experience to interpret advertising messages critically. The American Psychological Association has concluded that until at least the age of eight years most children do not comprehend that the purpose of advertising is to persuade consumers. In effect, children cannot effectively evaluate advertising, and tend to accept advertising as truthful, accurate and unbiased. Vulnerability to advertising may extend into adolescence as it is not until the reflective stage of cognitive development (age 11-16 years) that children are able to fully understand other people's perspectives and the complexities of communication. The associated ability to make rational judgements and question what they are being told is needed to make judgements about the persuasive intent of marketing. Improving children's knowledge of advertising does not always impact upon their preference for advertised products. Although children may understand that advertisements are attempting to sell products to them, they do not use this to protect themselves from the techniques employed.
Restricting unhealthy food marketing to children is a cost effective obesity intervention. According to the Assessing Cost Effectiveness of Obesity Report, a modelling study commissioned by Victoria's Department of Human Services, restriction of unhealthy food advertising on television was potentially the most cost effective and cost saving intervention of 13 interventions assessed for preventing and managing childhood obesity. This intervention is predicted to reduce individual children's risk of obesity to a small degree, but would have considerable beneficial effects over the entire population.
In May 2010, at the Sixty-third World Health Assembly, the World Health Organization (WHO) Member States endorsed a set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children (resolution WHA63.14). The recommendations aim to reduce the impact on children of marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, and/or salt by encouraging the development or strengthening of policies on food marketing to children. WHO has also developed a framework to help governments implement those recommendations and a monitoring framework has been developed through an international collaboration. Australia has endorsed the WHO Global Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of NCDs, which urges member states to take active steps to implement the recommendations. The WHO Global Action Plan proposes a 'health-in-all policies approach', including in communications regulation. It provides that Member States should consider regulatory measures, as appropriate, to protect children from adverse impacts of marketing, and protect dietary guidance and food policy from undue influence of commercial and other vested interests. These international policy commitments should inform and underscore the Australian Government's action on the issue.
Worldwide, there have been calls for regulatory systems to restrict food advertising to children. Many countries have shown interest in developing policies related to food marketing to children, and some countries have taken legislative action, including the UK, South Korea, Ireland and Spain. However, there has been little progress in Australia.
In 2009, the Australian Government's National Preventative Health Taskforce recommended a comprehensive, multi-faceted approach to reduce levels of childhood obesity and create a healthy environment. Restrictions to unhealthy food marketing to children were recognised as one element of this approach. The Australian government's 2010 response to this recommendation suggested the government would continue to monitor the impact of the self-regulatory initiatives to ensure their effectiveness and follow up if necessary.
In 2012, a review on behalf of the Australian National Preventative Health Agency examined the effectiveness of the current self-regulatory initiatives in reducing food marketing to children in Australia. It found that 57% of all food advertisements shown during children's programs were for unhealthy foods. The report recognised that the high level of unhealthy food advertising on Australian television is problematic.
Policy context for food marketing to children
Currently in Australia, there is a mix of limited government regulation, voluntary advertising codes and voluntary food industry initiatives covering food marketing to children. This mixed regulatory system does not provide a coordinated system, but rather a complex and confusing arrangement, with inadequate restriction of children's exposure to unhealthy food advertising, and non-existent or inadequate enforcement, monitoring and complaint handling.
Children's Television Standards
Current statutory regulations on marketing to children apply only to television advertising. The Children's Television Standards (CTS), under the remit of the Australian Communications and Media Authority, contain general restrictions on the amount and content of advertising during children’s television programs and periods (those classified 'P' for pre-school and 'C' for children). The CTS prohibit advertising during 'P periods' and restrict the amount of advertising that may be broadcast per hour during 'C periods' to five minutes. However, the CTS do not contain any general restriction of advertising of unhealthy food to children. They contain only one specific provision on food advertising (CTS 32(7)), which prohibits advertisements that contain any misleading or incorrect information about the nutritional value of foods or beverages.
The restrictions in the CTS apply only to commercial free-to-air television, and exclude the increasingly popular subscription television. The CTS only apply during 'C' and 'P' programs, which are broadcast mostly between 4-5pm, when in reality the majority of children watch television outside of these times. Television audience rating data indicate that child (0-14 years) audience numbers on commercial free-to-air television peak between 7-8pm, with large numbers of children still watching until 9pm.
Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice
The Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice, administered by Free TV Australia, also applies to free-to-air television, however only one clause specifically relates to food advertising, and relates narrowly to prohibiting misleading advertising and advertising that expressly discourages an active lifestyle or healthy eating habits. This Code does not limit the types of foods that can be advertised to children or the marketing techniques used.
Food and advertising industry self-regulatory initiatives and codes
While some food and advertising industry self-regulatory codes also exist, and extend beyond television advertising, these codes typically contain many loopholes, use very permissive and inconsistent nutrition criteria to classify unhealthy foods, do not restrict the volume of food advertisements to children nor apply during high rating programs for children, and have no independent monitoring or sanctions for non-compliance.
The Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) has developed three codes which relate to marketing across all platforms; AANA Code For Marketing and Advertising Communications To Children (2007, updated 2014), AANA Food & Beverages Advertising and Marketing Communications Code (2009) and AANA Code of Ethics (1997, updated 2012). All three codes include a range of specific clauses relating to marketing to children but they are expressed in non-specific terms such as advertisements must not encourage or promote an inactive lifestyle and unhealthy eating or drinking habits amongst children.
In addition to this, in 2009, the food industry developed two self-regulatory initiatives covering food marketing to children. These initiatives were both updated in 2014. The Responsible Children's Marketing Initiative (RCMI), established by the Australian Food and Grocery Council has 17 signatories and applies to marketing to children under the age of 12. Individual companies set their own nutrition criteria in a Company Action Plan to categorise which of their products represent healthier dietary choices and therefore are appropriate for marketing to children. The RCMI covers a range of media, including television, radio, print and cinema.
The Australian fast food industry also developed the Quick Service Restaurant Initiative for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children (QSRI) that has seven signatories. The core principles of the QSRI are stated to be that any marketing targeted to children, defined as under 14 years of age, must represent healthy foods in the context of a healthy lifestyle (including physical activity and a healthy diet). Marketing to children covers multiple media, including television, radio, magazines, newspapers, billboards, emails, internet sites and cinemas. A standardised set of nutrient criteria apply only to children's meals while other fast food such as fries and burgers can be advertised as they are outside the Initiative's definition of food to be included.
Children's exposure to food marketing
Children are exposed to large amounts of advertising in many aspects of daily life, including television, internet, magazines, billboards and supermarkets. Newer forms of advertising to children are emerging, particularly through mobile devices.
Much of the research and focus on food marketing has been on television advertising. Exposure to television food commercials increases children's preferences for branded and non-branded foods. Unhealthy food advertisements feature prominently during peak television viewing times of Australian children. Over the course of a year, the average child will see 40 hours of food advertising on television alone. Twenty-two of these hours or three and a half school days will be filled with advertisements for unhealthy foods. The most common foods advertised in children's peak viewing hours are unhealthy foods such as fast food, non-core beverages and confectionery. Techniques specifically designed to appeal to children in television advertising include nutrition claims, promotional characters and premium offers and these techniques are more commonly used on advertisements for unhealthy foods than healthy foods.
The internet and application software (apps) on mobile devices are used increasingly by food companies as another avenue to promote food brands and products to children. The techniques used to advertise to children in new media remain similar to those used elsewhere, promoting fun, fantasy, nutrition and taste. However the vehicles used for advertising vary widely and are not always as obvious as traditional mediums.
Analysis of food company websites popular with Australian children shows that 79% of websites used 'advercation', where information about the company or its foods is presented as educational material, and 28% used 'advergames', where branded products and characters are embedded in interactive computer games. Some food manufacturer and fast food chain websites also feature a kids' club, where children can sign up to receive special offers and alerts, reinforcing an ongoing relationship between the child and the company.
In Australia, young children use the internet most commonly for educational activities, but the next most common activity is to play games. Children are less aware of branded content in games and video clips, and that this constitutes advertising. A child is more capable of recognising overt marketing messages, including banners and pop-up advertisements. Subtle forms of advertising such as product placements may have a larger effect on children because they are preoccupied with the game, and are trusting and uncritical of its messages.
Advergames are effective because positive feelings are associated with game play, including a sense of achievement, fun or adventure, and these feelings become associated with the brand. When children play advergames featuring unhealthy foods, they are more likely to choose unhealthy foods for a snack. The effect increases with increased exposure, which is encouraged by games having multiple levels, high score boards and play again options.
Australian advertising regulators determined that the content of a company Facebook page is considered advertising and companies are responsible for all content, even fan content, as this should be moderated by the company. This means endorsements from children or others to consume unhealthy food products, or otherwise engage in an unhealthy lifestyle, will need to be closely monitored to ensure compliance with advertising codes. Since its advent in 2004, Facebook has been taken up by large numbers of Australian children, including many aged under 13, despite Facebook's requirement that users be aged over 13 years. In 2013, a survey conducted by tech company McAfee found that a quarter of Australian children aged 8-12 use Facebook. It also found that children were spending up to 1.5 hours on internet-enabled devices each day.
Popular Australian children's magazines contain frequent references to food with the majority of references for unhealthy foods. Few of these references are direct advertisements, with many more subtle mentions of food in recipes, competitions and editorial content. Children are not aware that these references constitute marketing. They perceive that products are recommended by editors based on what is popular or good quality, and do not understand that these are paid endorsements. Children who read magazines filled with unhealthy food marketing are more likely to choose unhealthy options.
Recognising community concern over outdoor advertising and the potential for exposure of children to inappropriate content, the Commonwealth House of Representatives Standing Committee conducted an inquiry into the regulation of outdoor advertising in 2011. One of the recommendations was that outdoor advertising be included in the definition of 'advertising' used to regulate marketing to children. The areas around schools are of particular concern, given the likelihood of exposure of large numbers of children. One Australian study found that primary schools had an average of 57 food billboards nearby, with 80% of food advertisements for unhealthy foods, like soft drink, alcohol and ice cream.
Research shows that parents misjudge the nutrition content and quality of products that have sports celebrity endorsements. Children are able to match sports with food sponsors and recall sponsors of their favourite elite sports. Parents have indicated support for restrictions on unhealthy food and drink sponsorship of elite sport. Many elite athletes believe they should not promote unhealthy foods, but are less supportive of restriction on food manufacturers sponsoring sports organisations, based on concerns that reduced funding would be available to support these organisations. Food company support of junior sports programs provides an opportunity to create brand loyalty towards products from a young age. An Australian study found that food and beverage companies contribute a relatively small proportion of junior sports club funding. Most parents are not supportive of their child's club being sponsored by unhealthy foods like soft drinks, fast food, snack foods, chocolate or confectionery.
Food packaging is covered by regulations (Food Standards Code), but not by advertising codes. However, food packaging influences purchase decisions for children and adults alike. A range of techniques are used by food companies to draw children's attention to products and lead them to believe that these products will taste better than competitor products. The most common techniques used to target children on food packages are bright colours, cartoon-like script, cartoon characters and educational or fun captions, novelty packaging, celebrity endorsement, puzzles and movie tie-ins. Company-owned characters are common on packages, in fact 90% of the characters found on supermarket products in 2011 were company-owned. Nutrition claims are used on many packages to suggest benefits of the food, even if they are not healthy products.
See the Cancer Council position statement on Front-of-pack food labelling for more information.
Limited impact of self-regulatory initiatives
Australian research examining the impact of the food manufacturers' self-regulatory initiatives has found that signatories have reduced the number of unhealthy food advertisements per hour since the initiatives were introduced. However, the majority of food advertising continues to be for unhealthy foods, with signatories over-represented amongst those advertising unhealthy foods.
Since the introduction of the QSRI, the amount of fast food advertising on television has actually increased. Although there have been some changes in the types of foods or meals advertised by fast food companies, children continue to be exposed to large amounts of fast food advertising.
Discrepancies between independent studies and company reports have been recognised worldwide, culminating with the publication in 2013 of a systematic review of initiatives. It found that scientific peer-reviewed papers showed high levels of advertising of less healthy foods, but industry-sponsored reports showed high adherence to voluntary codes. This systematic review concluded that adherence to voluntary codes may not reduce the advertising of unhealthy foods or the exposure of children to that advertising. A 2012 study of compliance with Australian regulations and industry initiatives found 301 breaches of the RCMI, 29 breaches of the QSRI and 619 breaches of the Children's Television Standards over a two month period. In 2012, a study for the Australian National Preventive Health Agency found that 57% of all food advertisements shown during children's programs were for unhealthy foods, despite current self-regulatory initiatives.
Problems with self-regulatory initiatives
The continued exposure of children to large amounts of unhealthy food advertisements is due to a number of loopholes and gaps that exist within the current regulatory framework. These loopholes and gaps are discussed below.
Many companies are not signatories to self-regulatory initiatives
Although many of the largest food and beverage companies are signatories to the self-regulatory initiatives, many companies that advertise unhealthy food to children are not signatories. A study in 2009 found that 11 of the 36 companies who advertised on television were signatories. Companies not signed to the initiatives include confectionery companies Haribo, which advertises its product Goldbears in television advertisements featuring children, and Stuart Alexander which advertises Chupa Chups through a website and a game-based app featuring product. Both Muffin Break and Donut King have not signed the initiative, but feature children's games and activities on their websites.
Media is only covered where the audience is predominantly children and/or having regard to the theme, visuals, and language used being directed primarily to children
Under the definitions of media directed primarily to children in the RCMI and the QSRI, regulations are applicable to all advertisements screened in P- and C-rated programs, and other programs that are considered to be primarily directed to children based on their themes, visuals and language, and to programs with more than 35% children in the audience. These conditions allow unhealthy food advertisements to appear during programs which are very popular with children, including the highest rating programs for children, if the programs are also popular with other audiences. Data from 2006 (the most recent published data available) showed that the percentage of 0-14 year olds in the free-to-air television audience peaked at just over 30% in the 8-9am timeslot and 16% in the 7-8pm timeslot, showing child audiences are usually in the minority and well below 35%. While the proportion of children may be low, the actual number of children viewing at peak times is high. The actual number of children watching television in the evening peak period of 7-8pm was six times higher than the number watching during P- and C- programs (500,000 compared to 80,000). Viewing data obtained by the Obesity Policy Coalition in 2012 for the 20 most popular children's programs showed audience share between 8-20% children except for three programs broadcast on ABC TV which has no advertisements.
Advertisements shown outside primarily children's programs are only covered if they are 'directed primarily to children'
The self-regulatory initiatives purport to apply to advertisements that are primarily directed to children. However, advertisements which use techniques, visuals and themes that appeal to children but also contain elements of appeal to adults are generally not considered to be primarily directed to children, and are consequently not covered by voluntary initiatives (unless they are shown in media directed primarily to children). In practice, this means that complaints about advertisements which would appear to be of primary appeal to children but include a single element that is directed to parents are often not upheld.
For example, a number of advertisements set in school playgrounds and featuring child actors and themes have been held by the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) not to be directed primarily to children merely because a single line in the advertisement is spoken to parents (e.g. Mondelez Oreo Double Stuff biscuit advertisement (Case 0225/12), Kellogg LCMs Strawbubbles bars advertisement (Case 0228/12) Kellogg LCMs Split Stix bars advertisement (Case 0258/13)). The Oreos ad featuring two children eating Oreo biscuits was deemed to be 'adult in theme and not primarily directed to children but rather to the main grocery buyer', despite the Board acknowledging that 'a brother and sister having a snack after school was an activity that many children would relate to' (Case 0225/12).
As well, advertisements for fast food can be shown in children's movies if those advertisements are not directed primarily to children. For example, advertisements by Oporto in Shark Tale (with 41% of the audience under 18), Oporto, Hungry Jack's and Pizza Hut during The Lion King (Sydney audience included 44,000 5-12 year olds) and by Oporto and Pizza Hut during Bee Movie (Sydney audience included 29,000 5-12 year olds) were dismissed as the advertisements were not directed primarily to children (Cases 0160/12, 0161/12, 0163/12).
In one study of television advertisements, only 3% of advertisements made a direct address to children, whilst many more used techniques that would appeal to children, such as images of children enjoying themselves, consuming the advertised product and playing with friends.
Nutrient criteria used to determine healthiness are weak and vary widely
Signatories to the RCMI establish their own nutrient criteria, which results in lenient and inconsistent criteria that allow companies to promote the majority of their products including less healthy products. Some company defined criteria classify many chocolates, confectionery, snack foods and sugar sweetened drinks as healthy enough to be promoted to children which differs from other widely accepted nutrition criteria such as the Heart Foundation Tick and government endorsed healthy eating advice. For example, Kellogg's nutrition criteria are based on kilojoule, sugar, saturated fat and sodium content per serve (based on serve sizes set by Kellogg's), and appear to allow many products that are very high in sugar to be promoted to children, including Coco Pops breakfast cereal and chocolate LCM bars. Campbell Arnott's nutrition criteria for sweet biscuits within their Company Action Plan allow advertising of Big Tedz, a large biscuit with one side coated in chocolate.
While the QSRI has standardised nutrition criteria for all companies, the criteria only apply to 'children's meals'. Therefore the healthiness of fast foods promoted to children, other than dedicated children’s meals, is not covered by the initiative. An Australian study looking at family meals at fast food restaurants found that a child's portion of the meal exceeds the maximum proportion of unhealthy nutrients that a meal should provide, based on recommendations for maximum daily consumption of these unhealthy nutrients.
Regulations on food marketing to children in the United Kingdom utilise a nutrient profiling model to determine which foods are healthy and unhealthy. This scientifically robust tool has been adapted for use in Australia to regulate health claims on food packaging, and could be used to regulate food marketing to children. WHO recommends that where a food classification system already exists, the same system should be used in food marketing policies to avoid inconsistencies and repetition.
Initiatives do not cover all types of media and advertising
Current food marketing to children regulations, codes and initiatives do not cover food packaging or supermarket displays that often feature competitions and cartoon characters that attract children. Outdoor signs are not included under the definition of medium under the RCMI. Premiums such as toys are considered to be an integral part of fast food meals and therefore do not fall under the definition of advertising. Presently two major fast food companies, McDonald's and Hungry Jack's, provide toys with their children's meals.
Initiative provisions are narrowly interpreted and complaints are rarely upheld
Few complaints lodged with the ASB regarding the RCMI and QSRI have been upheld even when logic would clearly suggest that a particular advertisement was promoting unhealthy food to children. Considering complaints which were before the ASB in 2012, there was only one complaint upheld from the eight complaints regarding the RCMI and fourteen involving the QSRI that were considered. In 2013, three of the 10 complaints regarding the RCMI were upheld and one of the four regarding the QSRI was upheld. Examples of complaints dismissed by the ASB in 2013 include a Smith's Popped Snacks advertisement that featured the readily recognisable character Mr Potato head from the movie Toy Story (case 0190/13) and a KFC television ad for a family meal (case 0188/13) that showed a son copying his dad's every move.
The ASB has no power to impose sanctions for breaches
Even when complaints regarding the self-regulatory initiatives are upheld, there are no sanctions which can be applied to advertisers. In most cases, the delay between the broadcast of the advertisement, the complaint being submitted and the ASB considering the complaint means that the advertising campaign has finished and any advertising impact and commercial benefit has been achieved (Case reports; Hero or Villain Paddle Pop 0454/11, Nestle Smarties 0407/10, Hungry Jack's print ads 0428/10 & 0427/10).
In other cases where a breach is found, the ASB can request advertisers to withdraw or modify advertisements, but it has no power to impose sanctions. In some cases, advertisements have been removed from use (i.e. McDonald's website banner – Case Report 0523/10), but in other cases only minor adjustments have been made, including altering the programs in which the advertisement can appear (i.e. Oreos Sippy Cup – case report 0136/11, Nestle Drumstick – Case Report 0482/10, Oreos Playground Boys – Case Report 0409/10).
Perhaps more fundamentally, there are no financial consequences or other sanctions for companies to deter breaches. For example, a 2009 complaint regarding a Hungry Jack's advertisement for its Kids Club Meals was upheld by the ASB (Case report 573/09), yet Hungry Jack's continued to run print advertisements. Further complaints were made and upheld (Case reports 32/10, 0427/10 and 0428/10), but there were no repercussions for Hungry Jack's for these continued breaches.
Community support for food marketing regulation
Surveys of Australian parents have found that they are very concerned about the advertising of unhealthy foods to children however they are not as concerned about internet advertising. However, these surveys were published in 2009, when social media advertising was less prevalent. Furthermore, parents are less likely to be aware of the extent of marketing that children see online, especially in more private arenas such as Facebook.
Parents are in favour of the government regulating the way that food and beverages are marketed to children. The public is more supportive of regulations on unhealthy food marketing to children than taxation.
* ↑ In this position statement, the term unhealthy food refers to foods and beverages not eligible to carry health claims as determined by the nutrient profiling scoring criterion in Australia New Zealand Food Standards Code, Standard 1.2.7 - Nutrition, Health and Related Claims.
Position statement details
This position statement was reviewed by the Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee and approved by the principal Public Health Committee in April 2014.
This position statement has been reviewed by:
- Kathy Chapman
- Dr Bridget Kelly
- A/Prof Lesley King
- Wendy Watson, Nutrition Project Officer, Cancer Council NSW
- Clare Hughes, Nutrition Programs Manager, Cancer Council NSW
- Jane Martin, Senior Policy Advisor, Obesity Policy Coalition
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