25 Oct 2015

Reviewing the rules for advertising to kids

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 25 October 2015

As the rules for advertising products to children come up for review, we look at what advertisers are currently allowed to do and ask why change is afoot.

mediawatch@radionz.co.nz; @mediawatchnz


A child eating while watching TV

Photo: 123RF

The government unveiled a new action plan to combat obesity and improve the health of children this week. The Food and Grocery Council and Coke NZ welcomed the new initiative which focuses on education, health checks and physical activity, but doesn't tax unhealthy foods or sugary drinks.

The health minister Jonathan Coleman said such taxes were impractical, critics claimed the plan didn't address fundamental problems and in parliament the debate descended into bickering about pies.

But Children's Commissioner Dr Russell Wills told Nine to Noon it isn't just bad food that is a problem, but how it is promoted.

Marketing to children has to be addressed. The reason the food industry spends so much money on marketing is that it works. We have vast numbers of children eating high-fat, high-sugar foods that are simply not good for them.

 - Dr. Russell Wills

Getting the message across to the young

It's not just the food industry that spends a lot of effort and money marketing to children.

The same day the anti-obesity plan was announced, TV3's show Story reported on the All Blacks' sponsorships, endorsements and merchandise worth tens of millions of dollars every year.

TV3's Story show visits a family fond of the All Blacks brand

TV3's Story visits a family fond of the All Blacks brand  Photo: screen

"While many of the products, like insurance, are aimed at adults, pester power is playing a major role in lining the Rugby Union's coffers," said reporter Dan Parker. "It keeps the All Blacks' brand fresh in the minds of children".

Radio New Zealand's Tom Furley scanned the supermarket aisles soon after the Rugby World Cup kicked off and found much of the All Blacks-branded goods clogging the shelves would appeal to kids: chocolate, milk and even nappies.

The same day the government’s anti-obesity action plan was unveiled, the body that sets the rules for advertising and deals with complaints announced a review of its codes on advertising to children. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said an independent chair, Ministry of Health representatives and the ASA's complaints board would consider public submissions on amendments.

The current rules

photo of Hilary Souter, ASA chief executive

Hilary Souter, ASA chief executive Photo: supplied

The ASA, which is funded by the advertising industry, set out the rules for the current code for advertising to children in 2010 and established a special code specifically for children's food.

There are also other rules in play. As part of a health push in 2007, the Labour-led government and broadcasters agreed to a Children’s Food Classification system. The Television Commercial Approvals Bureau establishes whether food in an ad is 'everyday', 'sometimes' or 'occasional’, in accordance with Ministry of Health nutritional standards, and then decides if and when advertisements for ‘occasional’ products can be screened during children’s programmes.

But for all the the codes and classifications, this week the ASA said only nine complaints have been dealt with under its Children’s Code for Advertising Food over the past five years. That is hardly a deluge, so why is it now reviewing the rules?

The ASA also said, also in a statement, it was “responding to calls for the review of the children’s codes to be expedited”. 

ASA chief executive Hilary Souter told Mediawatch it's no coincidence this is happenning at the same time as the government's anti-obesity push.

"The codes for children were up for review in 2016. We had meetings with the Ministry of Health and they raised the possibility of doing it sooner. So we agreed," said Hilary Souter. 

Some advertisers have already responded to concerns about children. Burger King stopped advertising kids' meals on television and giving away toys in April. 

Burger King New Zealand's chief executive John Hunter said it was part of the company's commitment to the ASA's children’s code for advertising food.

“It’s opened up interesting possibilities for Burger King to take more of a market leader position by being the first to take the high ground,” Marketing expert Kath Dewar told the marketing website The Register at the time. 

Moves like this could influence efforts to tighten up the rules all big advertisers to children must observe, while the food companies and retailers resist calls for tighter restrictions on unhealthy food.

What are the rules for advertising to children?

The ASA's codes defines children as people below the age of 14, and says kids should be able to clearly distinguish between commercials and editorial, programmes or other non-advertising content. 

Principle 1

The first principle says "all advertisements should be prepared with, and observe, a high standard of social responsibility".

Key guidelines:

  • Children should not be urged, in advertisements, to ask their parents, guardians or caregivers to buy particular products for them.
  • Advertisements should not portray violence, undue aggression, or menacing or horrific elements likely to disturb children.
  • Advertisements should not include sexual imagery and should not state or imply that children are sexual beings and /or that ownership or enjoyment of a product will enhance their sexuality.

Principle 2

The second principle says "advertisements should not by implication, omission, ambiguity or exaggerated claim mislead or deceive or be likely to mislead or deceive children, abuse their trust or exploit their lack of knowledge or without reason play on fear".

Key guidelines:

  • Advertisements should be clearly recognisable as such by children and separated from editorial, programmes or other non-advertising content.
  • Advertisements should be understood by children to whom they are directed, not be ambiguous, and not mislead as to the true size, value, nature of the advertised product
  • Where reference is made to a competition the rules should be made clear and the value of prizes and the chances of winning should not be exaggerated.
  • Advertisements soliciting responses incurring a charge should state, “Children ask your parents first” or similar words.
  • Care should be taken with advertisements promoting a competition, premium or loyalty/continuity programme to ensure that advertisements do not encourage excessive repeat purchase.

The Children's Code for Advertising Food

The code says ads:

  • Shouldn't undermine parents, government policy on food or Ministry of Health nutrition guidelines.
  • They shouldn't encourage excessive or frequent consumption.
  • The quantity of food in ads should not exceed serving sizes appropriate for the age of childen shown in ads.
  • Advertisements should not promote inactive or unhealthy lifestyles, or show people who choose a healthy active lifestyle in a negative manner.

It also says:

  • Care should be taken to ensure advertisements do not mislead as to the nutritive value of any food.
  • Foods high in sugar, fat and/or salt, especially those marketed to and/or favoured by children, should not be portrayed in any way that suggests they are beneficial to health. 
  • Care should be taken with advertisements promoting a competition, premium or loyalty/continuity programme to ensure that advertisements do not encourage frequent repeat purchases of foods high in fat, salt and sugar.
  • Persons or characters well known to children should not be used to endorse food high in fat, salt and /or sugar.