Two new studies expose the failure of an advertising code to stop children being targeted for junk food, write Fiona Sing and Bruce Kidd of the University of Auckland

Our children hold a position in the OECD that no country would want: They rank second only to the US when it comes to being overweight and obese.

A critical factor contributing to that ranking is our unhealthy food environment and the way we allow junk food and beverage advertising to target children. Two recently published studies have exposed the failure of the industry’s code intended to provide protection against children being targeted by junk food ads.

Currently in Aotearoa, the Advertising Standard Authority, an industry-run, industry-funded organisation representing advertisers, agencies, and the media, regulates its own advertising practices. It designs its own codes, appoints its own board to hear complaints, but has no authority to apply sanctions for breaches of the codes. Moreover, it is up to the public to monitor the advertising that targets their children, interpret the relevant code, apply it to advertisements and navigate the complaints process.

Three years ago, in 2017, the ASA introduced a specific code for children, the Children and Young People’s Advertising Code, in response to calls for government regulations on advertising and marketing junk food to children.

However, our research into the effectiveness of this code found that out of 16 complaints to the ASA that related to food and beverage advertising to children from 2017 to 2019, only one was upheld. In fact, we found the general Advertising Standards Code, where three complaints were upheld, offered slightly more protection for children.

The advertising that drew complaints ranged from platforms like Facebook and Instagram to outdoor advertising, print and television. They included the use of sports stars, Santa Claus and emojis, suggestions that cookies could be eaten for breakfast and that there were healthy burger and pizza options.

The second study, a feasibility study to measure digital food marketing to adolescents through Facebook, found that 98 percent of all food-related advertising targeted at adolescents on that platform was for unhealthy food. In total, food-related advertisements accounted for four percent of all advertisements seen.

This study shows we need further research in New Zealand to monitor digital food advertising specifically to understand how exposed our tamariki are to junk food advertising.

The results of both studies show the failures of CYPC to protect children given that digital advertising is virtually unregulated. Action is needed by the Government to ensure food brands and companies are unable to target young people, especially on the ever-changing social media platforms.

Currently, the self-regulatory code allows too much leniency. For an advertisement to be considered as ‘targeting children’ under the CYPC, it must meet almost impossible thresholds that do not align with international guidance on the scope of the media techniques that need to be regulated.

New Zealand is out of step with other countries and the World Health Organisation when it comes to how we regulate how food and beverage advertisers can target our children. For example, research shows the majority of foods advertised on evening television, children’s peak viewing time, would not be permitted if we followed WHO guidelines.

We also know Chile, a country that has introduced a series of government regulations, has significantly reduced junk food advertising to children. And in the UK, the plan for tackling junk food advertising, currently under consultation, includes banning digital food advertisements of junk food on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Junk food ads will not be shown until after 9pm on TV and “buy one get one free” promotions and check out aisle displays for junk food will be banned.

The governments of these countries have so far shown leadership in proposing these regulations and not left the industry to regulate itself.

Internationally, the WHO, the Human Rights Commission and UNICEF have all directed food marketing to children must be regulated to reduce its harmful impact on health. The majority of governments, including New Zealand, have repeatedly signed up to United Nations Political Declarations on Non-Communicable Diseases at high level meetings, stating they will address this issue urgently. Many governments globally have heeded this advice and acted.

We know the food and beverage industry’s primary role is to increase sales and shareholder value as a result. But this role creates a major tension for industry stakeholders between meeting commercial objectives and protecting the nation’s children from the sophisticated marketing practices they employ to fulfil those objectives. And this tension seems irreconcilable within an industry-run system of self-regulatory codes. But it cannot continue.

Aotearoa is a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child which states that children have a right to health. Regulating unhealthy food marketing effectively is one way we could meet this commitment. But until we do, our children will pay the price for our inaction, as they deserve to have a food environment that supports them to thrive.

Fiona Sing is a doctoral candidate in Population Health Nutrition, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland

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