Junk Food Injunction- Latest Edition

September 2015

Message from the Editors

Wong Mei Teng photoWelcome to the Spring issue of Junk Food Injunction. In this issue we look at some research on self-regulatory initiatives around the world. The Australian Food and Grocery Council report on compliance to the self-regulatory initiatives in 2014 found that many companies were still breaching their own responsible marketing to children initiatives. A study in US has found children's exposure to confectionery advertising is still growing despite a similar self-regulatory initiative. Another study highlights problems with the EU pledge around definitions of 'advertising to children' and transparency of communicating the pledge.
We report on fresh evidence finding children who watched TV ads had poorer diets than their peers who didn't watch ads. Modelling has shown the impact New York City's plans to limit toys to only healthy fast food kid's meals will have on children's diets. Again, cartoon characters and their influence on kids is a popular topic, and a US report confirms that checkout placement is a powerful marketing strategy. And finally, an Australian perspective suggests public health measures may have forgotten our youth but the advertisers haven't.


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(Ir)responsible food marketing to children initiatives

While voluntary food industry initiatives to promote more responsible food advertising to children sound honourable, do they really protect children from exposure to junk food advertising? The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) would like us to believe that they do, but our review of their 2014 Annual Compliance Report has uncovered 643 junk food ads in children's programs over a three month period. Over the course of a year this could equate to more than 2500 ads, and that's using the industry's definition of 'children's programs', those with an audience of more than 35% children. It's also based on the signatory companies' own nutrition criteria for determining which of their products are unhealthy.  Criteria varies from company to company and has been shown to fall short of accepted Government standards.

Of the 17 companies signed up to the Responsible Children's Marketing Initiative (RCMI) only four were found not to breach the Initiative while Mars Australia and The Wrigley Company breached 102 times, PepsiCo Australia breached 59 times, and Coca-Cola South Pacific and Campbell Arnott's breached 28 times each. Hungry Jack's breached the Quick Service Restaurant Initiative (QSRI) 245 times, followed by KFC (57 times) and McDonald's (29 times).

In the Annual Compliance Report, the figures tell a different story, with the AFGC reporting 99.7% (RCMI) and 99.5% (QSRI) compliance with their commitments under the initiatives. This convenient presentation of the statistics compares the number of breaches to the total number of times the ad was shown throughout the study period. For example, an ad for Hungry Jack's chicken nuggets was shown 68 times in children's programs but 2296 times in total, therefore making the percentage seem small at 97.3%.

With no sanctions for breaching these initiatives, repeat offenders have responded with similar rhetoric to 2013 blaming media buying agencies for placing ads for unhealthy food in popular children's programs and claiming they will "address issues with placement and ensure future compliance" and are "implementing steps to ensure bonus spots and scheduling changes are considered prior to programs going to air". While these responses to the report say they are addressing compliance, the figures show no improvement since last year. The 2013 study found 260 breaches of the RCMI and 384 breaches of the QSRI compared to 296 and 347 respectively in 2014.

This is only a snapshot of what is happening and shows how often children are exposed to advertising of unhealthy foods even under the weak definitions in the RCMI and QSRI. Add to this the high numbers of children seeing junk food ads in popular shows where children make up less than 35% of the audience (e.g. The Voice, The Block and The X Factor) plus ads by advertisers not signed up to these initiatives and it's clear we can't rely on these voluntary industry commitments to protect children from the unhealthy influence of junk food advertising.

Australian Food & Grocery Council. Annual Compliance Report, 2014 Annual compliance report for the RCMI and QSRI. Barton, ACT: AFGC; 2015

Sweet promises

Despite the US Children's Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CFBAI) signatory companies pledging that they will not advertise confectionery to children, exposure to candy advertising grew between 2008 and 2011. The main contributor to this increase was ads for the very brands that CFBAI signatories say they will not advertise to children. One third of the ads children viewed for these brands appeared on networks with a higher than average audience of children and adolescents. However, due to the narrow definition of 'child-directed advertising' this did not mean companies breached their pledges. An example is Hershey which, although it has pledged to not advertise any products in child-directed media, increased candy advertising to children and used child-targeted techniques in the majority of ads. This was due to placement of advertisements in other television shows watched by children.

Companies that do not participate in the CFBAI were responsible for one-quarter of children's exposure to candy advertising in 2011 and 17% of the growth in exposure. Therefore, greater participation in the CFBAI would also decrease children's exposure to candy ads.

The researchers want increased participation in the Initiative and a more effective definition of 'child-directed advertising' to reduce children's exposure to advertising for unhealthy foods.

And in Europe, an evaluation of the EU Pledge from food and beverage companies to change the way they market to children has found variation in individual company commitments such as the definition of a 'child audience'. Comparing companies that have signed the EU Pledge to those that haven't, the authors found that the pledge attracted large companies whose product range has a strong appeal to children. The study also highlights the lack of transparency in the detail of the commitments, concluding that the communication of the company commitments is so complex that it would be difficult for consumers to understand whether company commitments are meeting community expectations.

Harris JL, LoDolce M, Dembek C, Schwartz MB. Sweet promises: candy advertising to children and lmplications for industry self-regulation. Appetite 2015

Jensen JD, Ronit K. The EU pledge for responsible marketing of food and beverages to children: implementation in food companies. European Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2015 Aug; 69(8):896-901

TV ads linked to poorer diet

We've been calling for tougher policy to protect children from junk food advertising because of the known influence ads have on kids, and recently an Australian study has found evidence that those children who watch ads on TV have a less healthy diet.

The research on 417 children from ten to 16 years found that the more commercial TV they watched the more unhealthy food and/or drink they ate. This study, and numerous previous studies, showed increased exposure to ads forms positive associations to the advertised brands and encouraged product purchase and consumption. This new research reinforces the need for tougher regulation to protect children from unhealthy advertising on TV.

And having a TV in a child's bedroom may not be a good idea either. A study investigating the influence of parenting style on sugary drink consumption found that seventh grade students exposed to an authorative parenting style had lower levels of soft drink consumption. But this influence was weakened in those children who had a TV in their bedroom.

Kelly B, Freeman B, King L, Chapman K, Baur LA, Gill T. Television advertising, not viewing, is associated with negative dietary patterns in children. Pediatric Obesity 2015

Schwartz MB, Gilstad-Hayden K, Henderson KE, Luedicke J, Carroll-Scott A, Peters SM, et al. The Relationship between Parental Behaviors and Children's Sugary Drink Consumption Is Moderated by a Television in the Child's Bedroom. Childhood Obesity 2015

Improving the quality of kids' fast food meals that include toys

In Australia, McDonald's and Hungry Jacks give away toys with their kids' meals. New York City has proposed a bill that requires meals with toys to meet healthier nutrition criteria. A study that looked at fast food purchases in New York City and New Jersey found that 35% of children ate a combination meal – a children's meal with a toy – and of those meals 98% failed the nutrition criteria proposed under the new law. Modelling showed there would be a 9% reduction in calories consumed by those children who ate the combination meals if instead they ate meals that met the criteria. The study concludes that the proposed bill could have an effect on reducing calories, sodium and saturated fat consumed by children who visit fast food restaurants.

Elbel B, Mijanovich T, Cantor J, Bragg MA. New York City "Healthy Happy Meals" Bill: Potential Impact on Fast Food Purchases. American Journal of Preventive Medicine 2015

The influence of cartoon characters on children's eating habits

Several studies have investigated cartoon characters' influence on children's food choices and preferences. Researchers in the US primed children with an image of either an 'overweight' cartoon character, a 'normal weight' character or a control picture and then let them help themselves to a bowl of lollies as a thank you. Children who saw the overweight character took more than twice the amount of lollies compared to the other children. And children shown a picture with both an overweight and a normal weight character were also influenced by the overweight character. However, by talking about healthy choices prior to exposing the children to the pictures, researchers were able to activate the children's healthy eating knowledge and those children were not influenced by the overweight character.

Another study with 8-10 year olds found that putting a 'fun' label on a healthy food can make it taste better. The children were asked to rate the taste of different yoghurts; one packaged in a plain pack, one with a label focussed on health aspects and one with a label that included 'fun' cartoon characters. Children reported that the 'fun' labelled product tasted better, compared to the product labelled with a plain or health-only label.

A recent systematic review of studies looking at the influence of cartoon characters on children also confirmed that it may be a strategy to increase children's preference for fruits and vegetables. However, the review also found that when healthy foods compete against junk food, familiar character branding is a more powerful influence on children's preference for less healthy foods such as confectionery compared with fruits and vegetables.

Campbell MC, Manning KC, Leonard B, Manning HM. Kids, cartoons, and cookies: Stereotype priming effects on children's food consumption. Journal of Consumer Psychology 2015

Enax L, Weber B, Ahlers M, Kaiser U, Diethelm K, Holtkamp D, et al. Food packaging cues influence taste perception and increase effort provision for a recommended snack product in children. Frontiers in Psychology 2015; 6

Kraak VI, Story M. Influence of food companies' brand mascots and entertainment companies' cartoon media characters on children's diet and health: a systematic review and research needs. Obesity Reviews 2015 Feb; 16(2):107-26

Temptation at the checkout

Internationally, placement of unhealthy foods in supermarkets is not presently covered by food marketing regulations but a recent report by the Centre for Science in the Public Interest suggests that just as food manufacturers have agreed to policies on food marketing to children, they should voluntarily agree not to use placement fees to induce retailers to place unhealthy foods and beverages at checkouts.

The report cites the power of placement on purchasing behaviour and argues that checkouts can be a place where we may give in to temptation and buy on impulse. The report also recommends policies that set nutrition standards for retail checkouts to address impulse marketing of foods that increase the risk of chronic diseases.

The Parent's Jury campaigns for healthier checkouts in all Australian retail outlets because confectionery and sugar sweetened beverages strategically placed within reach of children at checkouts fuels pester power and makes it more difficult for parents to make healthy choices for their children.

Center for Science in the Public Interest. Temptation at the checkout, the food industry's sneaky strategy for selling more. Washington; 2015

Advertising to youth

There is little research into the influence of food and drink marketers on young adults despite concerning rates of weight gain in this age group. A recent article draws attention to the appeal of 15-24 year olds to marketers given their rapid adoption of new media and their vulnerability as they develop their own identity, shaped by peer groups and social norms. Among the recommendations to reduce young adults' exposure to unhealthy food marketing, the authors suggest regulation that restricts the use of lifestyle and image marketing, and the use of celebrities or professional athletes, and health-focussed advertising policies on social media platforms. This could have a flow-on effect to policies designed to protect children from food marketing given any marketing designed to appeal to young adults will appeal to those younger who aspire to be like their older peers.

Freeman B, Kelly B, Vandevijvere S, Baur L. Young adults: beloved by food and drink marketers and forgotten by public health? Health Promot Int 2015