Health experts call for tougher penalties to protect children from junk food marketing

27 Apr 2019

Election provides opportunity to address food industry’s persistent targeting of children with junk food ads

After nearly ten years of self-regulatory codes governing what food companies can promote to kids, the Obesity Policy Coalition is calling on both political parties to introduce stronger restrictions and tough penalties to protect children.

OPC Executive Manager Jane Martin said successive governments have left children’s health in the hands of the food industry, who’s end goal will always be to sell more products and make a bigger profit.

“For too long we have left it up to junk food companies to police themselves. We’ve seen no reduction in unhealthy marketing to children since these sham rules were introduced[1]”.

“If the next Government is truly committed to tackling Australia’s obesity epidemic, it needs to start by supporting families and protecting children from the industry’s tactics to build brand awareness and foster unhealthy behaviours.”

The OPC is calling for the next elected Federal Government to:

  • Protect children from unhealthy food marketing with time-based restrictions on TV and strong controls on digital marketing
  • Impose meaningful sanctions to companies who breach these rules
  • Monitor and enforce compliance through an independent agency

The call comes as a complaint made by the OPC to the Advertising Standards Community Panel (the Panel) about Kellogg’s marketing their LCM bars directly to children was dismissed.

The ad, which was aired on TV and is on YouTube, shows young children playing in a treehouse marked ‘no grown ups’. A woman stands below with a box of Kellogg’s choc chip LCM snack bars.

When she opens the box, individual puffs of rice and chocolate chips float up into the air towards the tree house and form into a bar that appears in the hand of one of the children, who looks at it with amazement. A voiceover and a message at the end says ‘Light up their afternoons with the awesomeness of puffed rice’.

The complaint was dismissed, despite the Panel saying that the ad would be attractive to children as well as to adults.  

Under the self-imposed industry rules, it’s not enough for these ads to appeal to children. The threshold for compliance is so high that the ads need to be directed primarily to children, meaning many companies get off scot free and children remain vulnerable to their marketing tactics.

Jane Martin, Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition said the decision demonstrated a tipping point in the food industry’s failed self-regulation system.

“This flawed code allows Kellogg’s to target children in prime-time television programs. These companies claim they don’t market to children and yet they promote ‘lunchbox’ products, use children in their ads and exploit themes that appeal to children.”

“These bars have more than 30 per cent sugar and, if they carried a Health Star rating, it would be a mere 1.5 stars. These products have no place in a healthy diet and with more than a quarter of Australian children above a healthy weight, putting children’s health first should be paramount.”

With the average Australian child exposed to around three junk food ads per hour during prime-time TV[2] and the targeted marketing offered through digital platforms, Ms Martin said Australia should look to other countries who have effectively imposed restrictions together with penalties for breaches.

“The UK has a mandatory regime in place that restricts unhealthy marketing, including online, print and in cinemas. The UK Government has acknowledged the powerful influence these types of ads have on what children want to eat and is currently reviewing stronger action to protect them.”   

“It would not be difficult to introduce similar measures here. The evidence is clear on what works to improve diets and prevent and reduce obesity. Next month’s election provides an opportunity for both political parties to show leadership on this issue.

“Introducing meaningful rules around junk food marketing is an important step in saving the next generation from a lifetime of chronic disease,” Ms Martin said.

[1] Watson, W L et al, ‘Advertising to children initiatives have not reduced unhealthy food advertising on Australian television’, Journal of Public Health (2017), 1-6:

[2] Ibid.