Parents of children in the UK have been given a voice in a new report from two charity programmes: Sustain’s Children’s Food Campaign and Health Equalities Group’s Food Active.
The issue at hand is the association of cartoon characters with foods high in fat, sugar, and/or salt, and arises as the UK Government prepares to launch a new drive to tackle both adult and child obesity.
In order to inform any policy calls, the charities said they ‘wanted to hear from parents first’. “After all”, they continued, “they are the most important decision makers affecting children’s eating habits”.
The case against HFSS cartoons
Food manufacturers have long been using child-friendly cartoons and licensed TV characters on food and drink packaging to increase the appeal of products to consumers – particularly children who may recognise such characters.
Yet rising obesity levels in the country are calling the use of child-friendly marketing into question. In England, 64% of adults are either overweight or obese, and 29% are obese. According to new figures from the National Child Measurement Programme (NCMP), more than one-third of children aged 10-11 years are overweight, and one-fifth obese.
In the study, a total of 942 parents of children across the UK were surveyed by the charities, with support from the Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity, to determine their take on ‘pester power’ – a term used to describe the ability of children to pressurise caregivers into buying them products.
Specifically, nine in 10 (91%) respondents said the use of child-friendly characters on food and drink leads to their kids requesting or pestering for those products.
More than eight in 10 (84%) said characters should be removed from unhealthy sweets, confectionery, and snack products, and nearly seven in 10 (58%) agreed that the use of children’s characters makes it more difficult to feed their children a healthy diet.
Parents weigh in
While of course, not all parents ‘give in’ to the pestering, many respondents agreed that the use of characters ‘often makes their parenting job more difficult’ – particularly when shopping with children.
“It would be really helpful if children’s food marketing (i.e. the use of characters) could be swayed towards healthy foods (i.e fruit and vegetables, no-added sugar yogurts etc.),” noted mother of two Rachel Allen. “It is really not helpful when you end up having a battle of will in the supermarket over Paw Patrol chocolate sticks.”
When it comes to shopping for their children, many reported that the use of characters is the most powerful marketing tool for attracting their children’s attention, which can make it more difficult for parents to prioritise price, brand and perceived health benefits of products.
“Healthy choices need to be easy choices, but it’s a minefield out there. I want a little more understanding and empathy – so many decisions are made with no idea of what it’s like to go around Asda with a screaming child, all because there was a cartoon character on a rice crispy bar,” said another mother of two, Lindsey Stephenson.
Other parents noted that their children’s familiarity with particular cartoon characters also plays a part in ‘pester power’.
“She will recognise the characters so she will want to eat it. Her favourite character is on it so she will think: ‘If he likes it then it must be tasty’, or ‘I want to eat what my favourite hero eats’.” – Parent, Pester Power? Report 2020
A call for government action
The report concludes that the association of cartoon characters with HFSS food and drink must end, a sentiment shared by a growing number of food players in the industry.
“These characters are rarely used on healthy foods, and therefore make it less likely that healthy foods will be chosen. Boring plain yogurt over Peppa Pig sweetened yogurts? Almost every parent I know chooses the latter, even simply because it sends the message that it’s ‘kid food’.” – Parent, Pester Power? Report 2020
In the absence of mandatory legislation in the UK (Chile is the only country to have banned cartoon characters on the packaging of ‘unhealthy’ food and drink), some supermarket retailers have taken steps to remove child-friendly characters from their own-branded high sugar cereals. These include Lidl, Aldi and Asda, Tesco and Co-op.
While the study authors welcome these retailers’ initiatives, they cited three concerns: The bans apply to own-brand products only; breakfast cereal is the sole category targeted, and voluntary measures ‘can easily be undermined’ by future marketing decisions.
Rather, the authors are calling for a ‘level playing fields’, which they say can only be achieved through legislation.
“Parents are clear – whether it’s Peppa Pig or Paw Patrol, Disney or Star Wars, or the brands’ own cartoon mascots, they have no place on the packaging of unhealthy food and drink. They confuse and undermine parents in trying to feed a healthy diet to their families, and cause unnecessary tension,” said Children’s Food Campaign co-ordinator and report co-author Barbara Crowther.
“Whilst there’s been some progress on breakfast cereals in some supermarkets, it’s not nearly enough. This is why we are calling on the Government to reconsider regulations to restrict their use to healthier food and drink only.”
Should manufacturers voluntarily erase cartoons from HFSS products?
In the meantime, the study authors are urging all remaining supermarkets, as well as brand manufacturers yet to commit, to remove child-friendly cartoon characters from breakfast cereals.
The same goes for manufacturers, retailers, and out-of-home companies responsible for all HFSS products with cartoon characters on-pack, the authors added.
UK trade body the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) agrees that more can be done to combat obesity, but suggested the solution is no easy fix, requiring a ‘holistic’ strategy.
“Obesity poses a huge public health challenge in the UK, and food and drink companies are well aware of their role in addressing it. For the last decade, companies have been voluntarily reformulating their products to reduce sugar, calories, fat and salt, as well as limiting portion sizes,” FDF Chief Operating Officer Tim Rycroft told FoodNavigator.
Not only are there ‘strict rules in place’ already concerning the advertising of HFSS products, but many companies apply their own voluntary codes of practice in this area, he elaborated.
“We agree more needs to be done to tackle obesity, but what is required is a holistic approach that recognises that obesity is a complex and multifaceted issue.”