UK consumer group Which? has accused global manufacturers of foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) of cynically manipulating children through a variety of advertising media in order to boost sales. This, the group suggested, directly contributed to the nation's obesity problem.

"Food marketers are treating children as blank canvases on which to paint their branding; embedding unhealthy food choices from a very young age and adding to the UK's rising child obesity problems," Nick Stace, campaigns and communications director at Which? said.

A new report published by Which?, Food Fables, examines the tactics used by 12 of the UK's leading food manufacturers to market HFSS products to children.

Which? identified a number of common marketing techniques that it said were used to appeal to children indirectly. Manufacturers create clubs, such as the Haribo Club, that children can join to receive food products and free gifts. They also employ viral marketing, such the Coco-Pops website where children can register two or more people if they include their email address to win a trip to an amusement park. Branding is another common technique illustrated by the partnership between McDonald's and the Funky Friends website, where codes are given away with Happy Meals allowing children to access special branded content on the site.

It also uncovers the inadequacies of company policies and the inconsistencies between the responsible policies they claim to work to and the techniques they actually employ.

"How can parents be expected to give their children a healthy, balanced diet when these sophisticated, underhand techniques are targeting their children often behind their backs? Most of their so-called responsible marketing policies are simply empty rhetoric," Stace accused.

Which? cited several instances of inconsistency between what manufacturers have said and done. According to the consumer watchdog, while Weetabix claims not to advertise to children from May 2006 Weetabix offered packets of Merlin football stickers in boxes of Weetos and children were encouraged to 'keep looking in special packs' to find their favourite stars.  Meanwhile, in July 2006 Masterfoods' Skittles let teams of boys and girls compete against one another to win tickets to a Robbie Williams concert among other promotions aimed at kids. However, Masterfoods claims not to target children. "We do not advertise to children…we take special care not to emphasise peer pressure and not to generate pestering," the company said.

"The industry must show real progress in the next six months. Which? will be keeping the pressure on government to regulate if industry doesn't respond voluntarily to curb these types of promotions for unhealthy food," Stace concluded.

However, the food industry has reacted angrily to watchdog's accusations, accusing Which? of failing to act in the spirit of partnership.
 
Food and Drink Federation director of communications Julian Hunt said: "We're seeking to work constructively with NGOs and government on all aspects of marketing to children in the Department of Health's Food and Drink Advertising and Promotion Forum. It's disappointing that rather than work in this spirit of cooperation and partnership, Which? has decided to generate cheap headlines which don't really help to take the debate forward."