Germany tightens rules on marketing food to children: ‘Advertising must not induce children to eat unhealthily’

By Katy Askew

- Last updated on GMT

Does Germany's new approach to junk food marketing go far enough? / Pic: GettyImages-Lisa5201
Does Germany's new approach to junk food marketing go far enough? / Pic: GettyImages-Lisa5201

Related tags Childhood obesity Marketing

Germany’s voluntary code governing marketing food to children has been updated. “Advertising must not induce children to eat unhealthily,” Federal Minister of Food Julia Klöckner stressed. What are the changes and do they go far enough?

The German advertising industry, represented by the Central Association of the German Advertising Industry (ZAW), has tightened its voluntary rules of conduct for food advertising aimed at children. The revised code will come into force on 1 June.

Announcing the update, ZAW said the commitment – which applies to TV, radio, print and digital communications - would ‘provide even more protection’ for minors under the age of 14. The current rules apply only to children under 12. Within digital, the advertising body specified that the rules will cover ‘cooperation with influencers’, social networks and advertising on video platforms.

The new guidance, ZAW said, takes into account social developments as well as input from manufacturers, retailers and regulators. It does ‘well beyond’ the legal requirements, ZAW noted.

"The advertising industry takes responsibility: Because the world is constantly evolving, we are continuously revising the self-regulation both with regard to the area of application - from advertisements to influencers - as well as the need for protection of individual target groups,”​ noted ZAW President Andreas F. Schubert.

The move was hailed as a victory by Federal Minister of Food Julia Klöckner, with the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture (BMEL) suggesting that ZAW implemented changes to ‘comply’ with requests from Klöckner for stronger rules.

"For me there was no question that the rules of conduct must be tightened. What is important is that it happens quickly and effectively. Because advertising must not induce children to eat unhealthily. This applies to all channels - on television , on online platforms or social media. It was particularly important to me that the scope of protection be expanded. Therefore, it was overdue for the age limit to be raised to 14 years. Children are now significantly better protected,​” Klöckner commented.

What’s changed?

The rules have been strengthened on a number of fronts:

  • The age covered by the code has been raised from children under 12-years-old to those under 14, in line with the federal states’ Youth Media Protection Treaty
  • The advertising of high fat, sugar and salt foods to children has been restricted by stopping positive nutritional properties, which may no longer be emphasised.
  • The scope of channels has been extended to include video sharing platforms and social media, including YouTube and TikTok.

Does this go far enough?

In what can be read as a warning shot across industry’s bow, Klöckner stressed: "I expect the modified rules of conduct to be applied consistently in practice - we keep an eye on that.”

The BMEL declined to rule out ‘stricter state regulation’ if the new rules ‘prove inadequate’.

“Basically, the responsibility here lies with the federal states, they have to check the effectiveness of their existing regulations and, if necessary, readjust them. To this end, the Federal Minister calls on the federal states to consistently fulfil their responsibility in terms of media policy implementation and review.”

But while Klöckner might be talking tough, campaigners - who have long critiqued what they characterise as an ineffective voluntary approach - were not impressed.

FoodWatch was particularly damning in its assessment. The consumer watchdog said that while advertising of HFSS foods aimed at children has been restricted, the marketing of unhealthy children’s food is not prohibited per ce – and packaging is not included in the update.

FoodWatch expert Luise Molling explained: "Federal Minister Klöckner is deceiving the public by selling the marginal adaptation of a voluntary commitment as a big hit. Manufacturers of sugar bombs and greasy snacks can still legally advertise their products directly to children - contrary to the demands of the World Health Organization, medical associations and consumer advocates."

Indeed, FoodWatch noted, a report by the scientific advisory board of the Federal Ministry of Food showed that in countries with legal restrictions on child marketing, the consumption of junk food fell by 8.9% between 2002 and 2016. In countries with voluntary business commitments, consumption rose by 1.7% over the same period. 

Molling concluded: “Voluntary self-regulation has been shown to be unsuitable for protecting children from abusive junk food advertising. Even Ms. Klöckner's own scientific advisory board therefore recommends legal restrictions on advertising aimed at children."

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