Junk Food Injunction- Latest Edition

February 2016

Food advertising complaints in 2015 - creative defences and disappointing decisions

Wong Mei Teng photo In 2015 there were 16 complaints to the Advertising Standards Board (the Board) concerning food marketing to children; five regarding websites, three each in the app, TV and outdoor signage category and one each for print and radio advertisements. Interestingly, in the past year half of the complaints referred to apps or websites with games. We have summarised some of the interesting quotes and decisions.


If you see an ad in 2016 that you think markets junk food to kids, let us know.

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Who were the offenders?

Seven complaints were about fast food ads; six regarding McDonald's and one from KFC and these were considered under the Quick Service Restaurant Initiative (QSRI) as both these companies have signed this initiative to say they will not market to children under 14 years of age. Four complaints involved food manufacturers that were signatories of the Responsible Children's Marketing Initiative (RCMI), three of those concerned Coca Cola's Fanta soft drink. Five complaints involved companies that were not signatories to either industry initiative (including three complaints for Frucor's V energy drink ad). All complaints were also considered under the advertising industry's codes, referred to as the Children's Code and the Food and Beverages Code.

Were the complaints upheld?

Two complaints were found to breach the RCMI as they were found to be ads for an unhealthy product directed to children; one about a Fanta app (0206/15) and the other a Fanta ad on TV (0204/15). Despite Coca Cola saying that the cartoon characters in the Fanta app game were drawn to represent 17 year-olds and "intended to be recognisable to teens as representative of the sub-cultures they encounter at high school", the Board decided that the cartoon characters were more likely to appeal to 9 to 11 year olds who aspire to be teenagers. The Board also ruled that the TV ad featuring the same "Crew" riding on a rollercoaster and then jumping into a pool filled with bubbles would be most attractive to and directed primarily to children under 12.

The loopholes

The other 14 complaints were dismissed. The most common reason complaints were dismissed is that they are not primarily directed to children but are for a broader audience. This is problematic as children will often be attracted to ads however advertisers often say that an ad is aimed at parents or an older audience. Indeed in many of their rulings the Board admitted that the ad would be attractive to children but that it wasn't primarily attractive to children and therefore was not in breach of advertising codes.

There were several complaints about ads using the Minions movie to advertise McDonald's fast food. McDonald's defended this decision explaining that the movie also appealed to adults by using "cultural/movie references, irony and sarcasm". The Board determined that the Minions movie was popular with children but that many families would watch the movie together and "also enjoy the associated marketing material". For this reason the board felt that advertising fast food using Minions characters was not advertising primarily to children (0280/15, 0282/15).

While complaints about the Fanta app and TV ad were upheld, a complaint about the Fanta website featuring the same cartoon teenagers, "the Crew", was dismissed. The Board acknowledged that the themes including colour and 'cool' looking characters would have some appeal to children but were not directed primarily to children (0205/15). A TV ad featuring an animated Sour Patch confectionery bear was a "sophisticated prank" according to advertiser Mondelez, and the Board found that although attractive to children, the ad would have broader appeal therefore the complaint was dismissed (0375/15).

In order to "promote healthy lifestyles" ads often feature only their 'healthy' products and a token football. In their Happy Meal promotions, McDonald's have replaced the healthier wrap with chicken nuggets in their displayed meal that also includes apple slices and water. This meal, although one of many 'Happy Meal' versions available to buy, fits the 'healthy' criteria within the Initiative. The Board agreed that this meal is not inconsistent with accepted government or scientific standards, although we would argue that fried chicken products are not a part of the everyday meat and alternative food group in the Australian Dietary Guidelines, and instead would be a discretionary choice (or 'sometimes' food) alongside other fried foods such as crisps and doughnuts (0281/15, 0336/15).

The advertising initiatives contain clauses specifically saying that advertisements should not discourage physical activity though it could be argued that playing games on an app or website does not encourage physical activity. Companies have been particularly resourceful to address this. McDonald's response to a complaint about their Happy Readers app was that it featured imagery of the main character, 'Happy', skipping and included copy stating "Get active with your friends today" and "Touch. Read. Discover. Play." This seemed to be adequate to convince the Board that the app did not discourage physical activity (0336/15).

The company excuses

In defence of their ads, companies often point out the nostalgic references that somehow exempt them from directly appealing to children. Referring to a game where players dive through the air while collecting coins, McDonald's said the Drop into Maccas' game "referred to popular culture from the 1990's that would not be understood by children", uses a main character who has "an adult 'hipster' appearance", "was reminiscent of classic arcade games and 'old school' Nintendo games", and that "children would not be familiar with arcade games". McDonald's even said "the game would require the dexterity (of at least a young adult) to tilt their phone to avoid the obstacles". However the Board said the game was very simple and the theme of collecting coins is relatively simple but ruled that it would not primarily appeal to children, thereby dismissing the complaint (0558/14).

KFC claimed that their billboard ad showing a boy, who seemed to be wearing a school uniform, was about "showcasing uninhibited food enjoyment which an adult audience can relate or reminisce about" and "achieved by portraying the male talent smiling with content as he's about to take a bite". The Board ruled that the depiction of a teenage boy eating a piece of chicken would be of appeal to both children and adults, dismissing the complaint (0382/15).

In responding to a complaint that the simple free games on their Fandangles ice cream website would be attractive to children, Peters claimed the games were aimed at women because women use mobiles and tablets to "streamline their lives but also to utilise the much important 'me time"' and "games should be built to play with one hand, tapping into the insight that women often play games when multitasking" (0146/15).

The advertising industry codes are particularly toothless

While all complaints were considered under the advertisers' codes, five complaints involved companies that had not signed up to the food industry initiatives so could only be scrutinized under the advertisers' codes. The Children's Code requires the product advertised to be a product of principal appeal to children so in the case of sugar sweetened beverages, such as Fanta, the code doesn't apply as it is determined that these drinks appeal to a broad audience.

The Children's Code only applies if the ad is directed primarily to children. In the cases of Mamee noodles and Fandangles ice creams complaints, the Board found that the websites were directed to children and the product was of principal appeal to children as well. However, the Code talks about "depicting unhealthy eating choices or practices" and the Board ruled that in the case of Mamee noodles, the games "are unlikely to be interpreted by children as messaging that would encourage them to eat multiple packets". In particular they highlight the "Mameegotchi" game saying that the monster was fed a variety of foods and not just noodles (0144/15).

As far as 'healthiness' of products such as Fandangles ice creams go, the Board regularly rules that "advertising of a food or beverage which has high fat, kilojoule and/or salt levels does not in itself breach prevailing community standards". The Board acknowledged community concern but found that "this concern does not mount to a community standard that advertising a food of a particular nutrient profile to children should be prohibited" (0146/15). Ice creams are considered discretionary foods in the Australian Dietary Guidelines. We think that this sort of advertising is particularly confusing to children who find it difficult to sort out the mixed messages about what they should be eating, whether it's parents telling them what is 'healthy' to eat or advertising telling them what is 'cool' to eat.

The Avengers movie was popular in 2015, with associated school holiday activities and even children's clothes featuring the Avengers' characters. There were three separate complaints about V energy drink (Frucor) ads featuring characters from the movie. In these cases the Board noted "potential community concern about marketing a product that is not suitable for children in a manner which would be attractive to children". However, they dismissed the complaints saying that "the choice of product was an unfortunate one to use in conjunction with The Avengers characters as such characters are indeed attractive to children- albeit also attractive to an adult audience" (0135/15, 0136/15, 0171/15).