21 Nov 2018

'Big holes' in regulations for junk food ads that target children

1:50 pm on 21 November 2018

The rules around advertising junk food to children are not working, says an Auckland coalition advocating for better nutrition.

File photo

File photo Photo: 123RF

Healthy Auckland Together has laid a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) about an ad for Kinder Surprise chocolate, which it claims specifically targets youngsters.

But even if it is upheld, health officials said there would not be any real consequences.

According to the Advertising Standards Authority's Code for Advertising to Children, "occasional food" like chocolate was not allowed to be targeted directly at children.

But Michael Hale, a public health specialist and spokesperson for Healthy Auckland Together, said new rules that came in last year were unclear.

"There's no strong deterrent and there's big holes in it, and that's what we're concerned about."

Kinder Surprise.

Kinder Surprise. Photo: 123RF

The ASA is an industry body and, as such, Dr Hale said it was not equipped to make such important decisions.

As it stood, he said commercial interests were being put before those of children.

"If you want to see real improvements - real gains - then there needs to be more than just the industry involved - we need government involved as well," Dr Hale said.

"You need to have some accountability beyond the industry itself."

According to the code, ads for what's called "occasional" food must not target children or be placed in media where children are likely to be a significant proportion of the audience.

Dr Hale said it appeared that the word "or" was being interpreted as "and" - a point he claimed was being exploited by advertisers.

"All the wiggle room now is around where it's been placed but it really denies the fact that the product itself is often being covered in things that are appealing to children ... full of emoji characters or featuring children as the main protagonist."

Whether or not an advertisement was considered to be targeting children was something calculated by the percentage of total views deemed to be children.

If up to 25 percent of viewers were children, "occasional" foods and beverages could not be advertised.

But Mr Hale said that, while a higher percentage of children may be watching during after-school hours, there were probably more children watching between 6pm to 9pm.

ASA chief executive Hilary Souter acknowledged this was a concern for some, but said the line needed to be drawn somewhere.

"It's a threshold we also use for alcohol advertising so it's something the industry's familiar with. Internationally that threshold is 35 percent in many countries."

Contrary to Dr Hale, Mrs Souter said advertisers were being far more careful about unhealthy food than they used to be.

"Advertisers are having to think very carefully about what they're advertising, if it has an appeal to children and then if that is the case then they have to take great care with their execution."

She disputed Dr Hale's argument that the ASA could not be objective about what advertisements should be allowed.

"Our membership are advertisers, advertising agencies and media organisations, but our complaints board - who make the decisions - is made up of five [members of the] public."

The ASA is expected to release its decision on the Kinder Surprise advert on Thursday.

Ferrero Australia, which owns the Kinder brand, did not return requests for comment before this story was published.

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