Swamped by sugary drinks ads: consumer call for health ignored as big beverage spends big bucks to sweeten Australians

10 May 2021

New research has revealed that advertising spend on sugary drinks is almost double the spend on all other drink options combined, contradicting the beverage industry’s own rhetoric and sales data that shows consumer preference for low and no added sugar drink options.

A Cancer Council Victoria study, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, examined advertising spend over 2016-2018 across Australian media, including free-to-air television, newspapers, magazines, radio, cinema, digital and out-of-home advertising. The analysis found that expenditure for sugary drinks of $129.5M far exceeded that for alternative cold beverages of $68.83M.

Study author Dr Ashleigh Haynes, from Cancer Council Victoria said the results indicated that the Australian food and drink marketing environment, flooded with sugary drinks advertising, is at odds with the World Health Organization’s recommendation that free sugar consumption be limited to small amounts.[1]

“Soft drinks (26%), flavoured milks (24%), and energy drinks (21%) accounted for the majority of sugary drink advertising in Australian media,” Dr Haynes said. “Artificially sweetened drink advertising spend made up only 12%, on average.”

“Across media channels, we found that television and out-of-home advertising accounted for the largest share of sugary drink advertising (45% and 35% respectively) and expenditure on out-of-home advertising was far more heavily dominated by sugary drinks (75%) than advertising in all media combined (65%).” Dr Haynes said.

Executive Manager of the Obesity Policy Coalition Jane Martin said that the findings highlight the need for state governments to protect our children with stronger regulation around what can and can’t be advertised on public transport and government owned property, and that the sheer proportion of advertising expenditure on sugary drinks advertising contradicts the narrative the sugary drink industry has attempted to sell us for decades.

“Our kids should be able to travel to school or attend a sporting match without being targeted by sugary drink advertising. The Australian Beverages Council and its members have worked hard to persuade Australian consumers that they care about the impact of sugary drinks on our health and are making changes in line with this. Three years ago, they pledged to reduce the amount of sugar across their portfolio by 20 per cent by 2025. Such pledges lose all credibility when we learn that they’re pumping millions of dollars into advertising their full sugar drinks over lower or no sugar options,” Ms Martin said.

“Nobody should trust sugary drink companies to protect our health voluntarily. The beverage industry will always prioritise profits over health. We need governments to set higher standards to support a shift to the promotion of healthy products on TV, radio and digital platforms, as well as in our public spaces, at public events and on public transport.”

The Obesity Policy Coalition has called for all Australian governments to adopt four actions as outlined in their ‘Brands off our kids!’ report, aimed at protecting Australian children from unhealthy food marketing in all areas of their life.

“The National Obesity Strategy, now overdue, provides the framework to include the four actions identified in ‘Brands off our kids!’ to ensure a childhood free of unhealthy food and drink marketing. By protecting children from unhealthy marketing online, on TV and on their way to school, we can improve diets and enhance the health and wellbeing of millions of Australians.” Ms Martin said.

[1] World Health Organization. Guideline: Sugars Intake for Adults and Children. WHO: Geneva, 2015. Available from: https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241549028.

About the research:

The research, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, collated data on advertising expenditure for sugary drinks and alternative cold beverages (including artificially sweetened alternatives, plain milk, and plain water). Advertising activity on free-to-air television, newspapers, magazines, radio, cinema, digital and out-of-home formats (including public transport, billboards and street furniture) was monitored by a leading commercial media monitoring agency and used to calculate estimated expenditure. Values were adjusted for inflation to 2018 dollars.