The debate over junk food and childrens advertising in Australia as polarised as elsewhere

The debate over junk food and children's advertising in Australia as polarised as elsewhere

The Australian food industry has recently claimed substantial progress for its self-regulatory measures aimed at restricting children's exposure to advertising of foods high in salt, sugar and fat. Health campaigners are less impressed. Ben Cooper assesses a polarised debate Down Under.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council's claim earlier this month that advertisements for high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) foods have fallen to "almost zero" of all food ads on children’s TV might suggest the country's food industry has put paid to a persistently thorny issue.

The reality of course, as the experience in other countries might suggest, is rather more complicated. 

As in other markets, self-regulatory efforts in Australia, spearheaded since 2009 by the Responsible Children's Marketing Initiative (RCMI) and the similar Quick Service Restaurant initiative, have been effective at reducing HFSS food advertising via children's programming. 

The AFGC reports HFSS foods represented 0.7% of food and beverage advertisements on TV targeted at under-12s in March to May 2011, 60% down on 2010.

However, it is the overall exposure of children to food advertising via mainstream programming which remains the chief concern for campaigners.

Jane Martin, executive manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC), says programmes covered by the initiatives are watched by "very small numbers of children compared to programmes in peak viewing times", while the reported decline "does not equate to any significant reduction in children's overall exposure to unhealthy food advertising on television or via other forms of media". She criticises the criteria for determining whether an ad is directed at children as "very narrowly construed". 

Dr Geoffrey Annison, acting chief executive at the AFGC, is careful not to overstate the role the RCMI can play in tackling childhood obesity. "The RCMI alone cannot solve childhood obesity in Australia as many factors contribute to the problem," he says, although it is "aligned with the premise that we should be doing everything practical to assist children to eat healthily". Dr Annison says the RCMI "is achieving its aim of reducing children’s exposure to non-core food and beverage advertisements". 

Under the initiative's criteria, "non-core" foods include high-sugar and/or low-fibre breakfast cereals, high-fat frozen meals, cakes, biscuits, pies, ice cream, confectionery and sweetened soft drinks.

There is a problem when a brand that encompasses a wide range of foods advertises on children's TV. The example often cited is McDonald's that may freely advertise a better-for-you option during children's programmes. However, is it that specific meal or simply the Golden Arches and Ronald McDonald that an impressionable child sees?

Annison counters: "All food companies produce products that fall at different points on the nutrient composition spectrum and all companies should be entitled to advertise their products in a responsible manner." He says companies provide consumers with a range of choices but under the RCMI only market "healthier choice items" to children. How these fit into a family diet is for parents to decide, he says. 

As for children's exposure to HFSS food advertising outside children's programming, Annison again refers to the initiatives' objectives. "The initiatives are not intended to prevent children from ever viewing an advertisement for non-core foods," he says but to "restrict advertisements for non-core foods that are directed to children through the nature of the advertisement and/or the medium".

However, Martin points to research by Australian consumer group Choice suggesting the majority of non-core food advertising is broadcast between 6pm and 9pm when she says children's viewing is at its peak.

"There is evidence in Australia that peak children's viewing times are before school and in the evenings from 6pm to 9pm. Significantly fewer children watch dedicated children's programmes." Martin cites a 2010 survey by Cancer Council Victoria which found that 83% of consumers supported banning advertising of unhealthy foods at times when children watch television. "The OPC is advocating legislation to restrict unhealthy food advertising during these peak viewing times."

The industry opposes a 'watershed' restriction on HFSS food advertising on the grounds it inhibits the freedom of adults to view advertising intended for them, not to mention the commercial freedoms of companies to communicate with their adult consumers. 

Annison's contention that watershed limitations "capture programmes that are intended for adults even though they may be watched by children" is debatable. Others would suggest this is programming aimed at a mixed audience and, as it has a child contingent, often in sheer numbers much higher than dedicated children's programming, it should be subject to some controls.

Nevertheless, Annison believes "children's exposure during this time is a family choice and it lies with the family to determine how different products advertised fall within their diet". 

Martin not surprisingly sees things differently. "Comprehensive restrictions are required on unhealthy food advertising directed to children in all media and locations, including television, internet, public places and children’s institutions, services, events and activities." 

The OPC is also pushing for a uniformed approach to defining what constitutes "unhealthy food", and a "broad approach" to defining when advertising is directed to children, including advertising that is "likely" to appeal to children whether or not it is intended for older age groups. It is also seeking measures covering children up to 16, and for a system that is "independently administered, actively enforced, with penalties and sanctions" and "regularly reviewed and evaluated".

The AFGC says it is "always looking to improve the way codes operate and their effectiveness", and "looks forward" to continuing discussions with government to ensure the RCMI is "aligned with community expectations, remains practical for industry to implement and is successful in supporting better diets and health outcomes for all Australians".

Annison says the AFGC recognises that "ongoing review of the initiatives is critical to maintaining their relevance and effectiveness", and says evaluation will also include consultation with stakeholders "to ensure their views are taken into consideration".

When asked if the AFGC had received any positive feedback regarding its latest report from campaigners or government, Annison said: "The RCMI and associated QSR Initiative are currently undergoing an independent review. The outcomes of this review will be available later this year".

Marketing to children also features on the Australian National Preventive Health Agency's strategic plan so the issue is clearly on government and public health radars, too. Annison says the AFGC is "always willing" to meet with government and public health agencies to discuss this issue and is keen to continue to work with the Government to "achieve consistent monitoring of the outcomes of the RCMI".

While the issue of exposure of children to HFSS food advertising will be subject to ongoing discussion, the debate appears as polarised in Australia as it is elsewhere, with campaigners pushing for restrictions and industry advocates contending that their self-regulatory efforts are sufficient and are making a difference. Industry has made progress on child-directed advertising but exposure during mainstream family programming remains the chief concern.

Self-regulatory measures have been shown to be "inadequate to meaningfully reduce children’s exposure to unhealthy food advertising", Martin says, as they do not prevent unhealthy food advertising in programmes with the highest numbers of children viewing, do not cover all types of media, do not apply to all food advertisers, lack independent monitoring and sanctions for breaches and contain "unclear and inadequate" nutrition criteria.

Annison says the AFGC "anticipates participating in roundtables to discuss how responsible marketing to children can be both assessed and improved in future". They promise to be lively affairs.