Report damns online junk food advertising to children

By Kacey Culliney

- Last updated on GMT

HFSS foods marketed to children online due to loopholes in regulation, claims report
HFSS foods marketed to children online due to loopholes in regulation, claims report

Related tags: Marketing

Inconsistencies exist in advertising regulations across different media, enabling companies to market high in fat, salt and sugar products (HFSS) to children online, claims new report.

The joint report from the British Heart Foundation (BHF) and the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC) has called for government action to re-address advertising regulations to cover all forms of media, ending the “loophole allowing products outlawed from children’s television to be marketed to young people online.”

Mubeen Bhutta, policy manager at the British Heart Foundation, told FoodNavigator.com that the purpose of the report is to “highlight the inconsistencies between broadcast and non-broadcast advertising” ​for HFSS content.

Researching 100 food and drinks websites, 80% of which are associated with products defined as ‘less healthy’ by the Food Standard Agency’s nutrient profiling, it looked at the marketing techniques used to create ‘child-friendly’ websites.

It found that cartoons, animations and brand characters to be the most common marketing technique and noted that over half of the sites featured competitions and games to appeal to children.

50% of the sites featured television adverts or links to YouTube content targeted at an older audience.

Industry reaction

Terry Jones, director of communications at the Food and Drink Federation, told FoodNavigator.com: “It is disappointing that the report authors have been highly selective over the information presented in order to make yet another of their seasonal attacks on the food industry.”

“They have highlighted aspects of our members’ online marketing that support their agenda but consciously ignored the many other positive aspects that demonstrate the industry’s responsible approach. For example, the sites are clearly branded, there is no attempt to mislead consumers and parental interaction is encouraged,”​ Jones continued.

Bhutta said that “it’s not about whether the sites are clearly marked, it’s about if it is geared towards children.”

She added that the BHF is not claiming that report is comprehensive of the industry, “it is only a snapshot,” ​but that the findings clearly demonstrate that regulations do not go far enough.

Advertising regulations

Sue Davies, chief policy adviser at Which? told FoodNavigator.com that the report highlights, “yet again, the need to further action to ensure responsible marketing of foods to children as part of wider strategies to tackle obesity and diet-related disease.”

“While there has been some action on TV advertising in the UK, many gaps remain. Currently self-regulatory codes and voluntary company pledges do not go far enough to address the complex ways in which less healthy foods continue to be marketed to children,”​ she said.

Jones noted that advertising in the UK is well governed and rules have recently been revised to include online material.

Alluding to the recently implemented CAP advertising code for non-broadcast material including digital, he said that the Food and Drink Federation worked with the Advertising Standards Authority prior to introducing the new code, “to ensure that our member companies were fully aware of the new responsibilities.”

“Food manufacturers invest significant time and resources in their digital marketing options; they are carefully considered and responsibly planned to abide by the advertising codes and maintain their reputation and trusted brands,”​ Jones said.

However, the report defines these regulations as ‘vague’ and a ‘weak self-regulatory system’ that allows unhealthy foods and drinks to continue to be marketed to children online.

Related topics: Policy

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