Published in the journal Obesity Reviews, the research found that there had been little change in children’s exposure to advertising for unhealthy foods and drinks over the past five years in Europe, Asia, North America and Australia. However, the study did find stronger evidence of improvement in the UK and South Korea.
The researchers also found a big discrepancy between the findings of industry-backed studies and independent assessments, with industry-sponsored reports finding very strong evidence of reduced exposure to advertising, even in countries where other scientific studies had not found this to be the case.
“The discrepancy is presumably due to what is being measured,” said the study’s lead author Tim Lobstein. “The companies don’t look at everything children watch, only what they themselves advertise. They don’t consider adverts from companies which haven’t signed up to self-regulatory pledges – i.e. several thousand smaller food and beverage companies. They don’t look at the family TV programmes watched by children, only children’s TV. And they use their own criteria for judging what is appropriate to advertise to children.”
In particular, the review highlights a UK ban on advertising during children’s television programming, which has been effective in reducing children’s exposure to adverts for high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) products during such programmes.
Terry Jones, director of communications at the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, said: “Following an independent review by Ofcom, the independent regulator for the UK's communications industry, it was satisfied that existing restrictions have served to reduce significantly the amount of HFSS advertising seen by children. Existing restrictions were also considered to have reduced the influence of techniques in HFSS advertising that are considered likely to be particularly attractive to children.”
However, Lobstein urged Ofcom to widen the scope of the regulations to make them more effective, as advertising of junk food during family TV in the UK had increased since the ban on ads in children’s programming came into effect.
“Self-regulation simply does not work in a highly competitive marketplace,” he said.
Meanwhile, Jones claims that many UK food manufacturers go beyond what is required of them under regulation, making European and global voluntary commitments and developing their own responsible marketing guidelines, as well as reformulating products to reduce salt, saturated fat and energy, providing healthier options and clear nutrition labelling.
The full review is available online here (pdf).