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TV ADVERTISING

Advertising ‘junk food’ on TV contributes to obesity in children. Health professionals and the public want to see such advertising banned, but the food and advertising industries do not.

Updated 9 April 2011

What is ‘junk food’?

‘Junk food’ is food or drink high in sugar, fat or salt, and generally lacking in the things most important in a healthy diet. Often these foods are called ‘energy-dense and nutrient-poor’.  From a health perspective they should be consumed only occasionally as treats, or not at all.

Evidence linking junk food ads on TV to obesity

Major international reviews of the link between advertising and childhood obesity have consistently found:

  • Food advertised to children on TV is unhealthy when compared to food recommended by nutritionists.
  • TV advertising influences children’s food preferences, requests and consumption to the detriment of a healthy diet.
  • There is a well established link between how much TV children watch and childhood obesity.

A recent review of interventions to reduce the risk of cancer, conducted by the World Cancer Research Fund and the American Institute for Cancer Research, concludes:

“A mass of evidence … shows that targeting children with television advertisements and other promotion of sugary foods and drinks, ‘fast food’, and other convenience foods shapes the choices of children and their parents, and is probably a cause of overweight and obesity in childhood and then in adult life. For these and other reasons there is also compelling justification for policies and actions that restrict or prohibit such advertising and marketing.”

New Zealand research suggests the findings of major international reviews apply here too.  New Zealand has a high level of TV advertising of junk food to children.

References to the evidence

Arguments for banning junk food advertising to children

FOE and others who want a ban on advertising junk food to children do not claim such advertising is the sole cause of childhood obesity. Nor do they claim that banning advertising in isolation from other measures will alone halt the obesity epidemic. Childhood obesity has multiple causes, and its reduction will require a wide range of measures.

A ban on junk food advertising, though not the complete answer, is a key part of a comprehensive strategy.  For example:

  • A study conducted for the Victorian state government (the “Assessing cost-effectiveness in obesity project”) found reducing TV advertising of junk food to children was potentially the most cost-effective single intervention that could contribute to reducing childhood obesity.
  • Mathematical modelling by Veerman and others suggests between one in three and one in seven US children might not be obese if there was no advertising of junk food on TV.  While models are only as good as their assumptions, nevertheless this strongly supports a ban on junk food advertising as one of the first measures to take in reducing childhood obesity.
  • A recent European-wide study showed that while other forms of advertising are growing, TV remains the main medium for advertising junk food to children.

References to the arguments

New Zealand support for junk food advertising ban

A 2007 survey of New Zealand parents and grandparents found more than 4 out of 5 wanted junk food advertising to children to be stopped. A poll commissioned by FOE in 2005 had similar results.

Submissions to the 2006 Health Select Committee Inquiry into Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes from across the New Zealand health sector strongly supported greater regulation of junk food advertising to children. The banning of TV advertising of junk food to children was particularly emphasised in these submissions.

In its report to Parliament in 2007, a majority of the Health Select Committee recommended junk food advertising on TV be restricted to after 8.30pm.

References supporting a ban

Industry arguments against advertising restrictions

The food and advertising industries are opposed to government-imposed restrictions on advertising junk food to children. Their arguments include:

  • The role of the food and advertising industries is to provide consumers with choices, and parents are responsible for whether their children watch TV, and which food products they purchase for their children.
  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child gives children the right receive information.  As interpreted by the advertising industry, it would therefore be restricting children’s rights to deny them access to advertising.

References to industry arguments

Industry arguments are weak

Industry arguments citing ‘consumer choice’ and ‘rights of the child’ are weak.

  • Advertising junk food to children undermines the ability of parents to act responsibly.  Parenting in today’s consumer culture isn’t easy, and by appealing directly to children, junk food advertisers make it more difficult for besieged parents to exercise control over what their children eat.
  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child gives precedence to the need to protect children. This includes protection from information and material injurious to their well-being, which would certainly include junk food advertising.

References to industry argument weaknesses

TV Advertising to children: Failure of “self-regulation” in NZ

New Zealand’s food and advertising industries claim government intervention is not required as they are already acting responsibly through “self-regulation”.  There is strong evidence this is not true.

TV broadcasting

In May 2008 the New Zealand Television Broadcasters’ Council announced voluntary guidelines for restricting advertising of less healthy food to children at certain times.  But:

  • The guidelines applied only to children’s programming times. On weekdays these finished at 4.30pm (TV3), 5pm (TV2) and 6pm (Māori Television).
  • In the same month the Broadcasting Standards Authority released a report showing three of the four most popular programmes for children screen outside children’s programming times.

TV broadcasters updated their voluntary guidelines in March 2011 to reflect their name change to ThinkTV.  They claim they have extended the hours when they restrict advertising to children. But there is no change of substance. Their updated guidelines still don’t apply to the early evenings – the time when the highest numbers of children are watching, and when the most popular shows watched by children are aired.

During weekday afternoon TV, school-aged children’s programming times now finish at 4:30pm (TV4) and 5pm (TV 2).

ThinkTV’s claims of increased  hours when advertising to children is restricted just reflects the increase in children’s programming times. We now have TV 7 (no ads anyway and about to close) and TV4.

They also claim that the guidelines resulted from their wish to address obesity by reducing children’s exposure to certain food advertising. So why don’t their  guidelines apply when children’s TV audiences are at their largest?

Advertising codes

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), funded by the New Zealand advertising and media industries, updated the Code for Advertising of Food, and the Code for Advertising to Children in 2010. At the same time it added the new Children’s Code for Advertising Food. This combined material from the two other codes, rather than heralding any change in policy.

The ASA claims self-regulation by advertisers under these codes is sufficient, and that government regulation is not required.  But:

  • The wording of the codes leaves serious loopholes enabling advertisers to advertise junk food to children on TV and elsewhere.
  • Complaints under the ASA system about junk food advertising are difficult to make because of ambiguities in the codes. Most complaints are unsuccessful under the industry-dominated review process. Many complaints are not even considered by the complaints board as they are rejected by the industry-appointed chairperson.

An analysis of the wording and implementation of the ASA codes by University of Otago researchers found they are failing by a wide margin to protect children’s rights under the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.

Dr Caroline Shaw, in the New Zealand Medical Journal, points out New Zealand has failed to adequately address junk food advertising to children in recent years in spite of:

  • accumulating evidence of the adverse health effects of obesity
  • growing knowledge about the exposure of New Zealand children to marketing of unhealthy food
  • strong public support to reduce this exposure.

References on self regulation failure

Failure to protect children from junk food advertising in Australia

Australian consumer organisation Choice came to conclusions that mirror the situation in New Zealand:

  • The TV programmes most watched by children under 14, and the times when most children are watching, also feature the greatest number of junk food ads.
  • Most food advertised between 6am and 9pm fails the healthy food test and should not be marketed to children.
  • More than six times as many children under 14 watch TV between 7.30pm and 8pm, compared with after school when children’s programmes are traditionally shown.
  • Current regulations and voluntary industry initiatives fail to protect children from the huge number of junk food ads that appear during the programmes they watch most.

Food Standards Australia New Zealand has developed nutrient profiling criteria that judge individual products as healthy or unhealthy based on their ingredients.  Choice has called for these criteria to be used as the basis for regulating junk food advertising to children.

Reference on failure to protect Australian children

New Zealand’s response to international initiatives

In an Annex to a recent report on preventing non-communicable diseases the World Health Organization (WHO) called for greater restrictions on marketing food to children.

When the issue was discussed at the WHO Executive Board meeting in January 2010, some countries supported strengthening of the recommendations in the Annex, while others wanted them weakened, with more emphasis on industry initiatives.

We assume New Zealand was among the countries wanting the WHO proposals weakened, because:

  • The Association of New Zealand Advertisers (ANZA) opposes several of the WHO recommendations, and believes voluntary self-regulation by industry is all that is required.
  • The New Zealand Minister of Health believes food advertising needs no further regulation, and that the ASA codes for advertising food to children are working well.
  • The ANZA website claimed the Minister of Health would be lobbying regional WHO delegates in support of ANZA’s position.

The ANZA website now tells a different story. The wording has been changed to say the Minister of Health would be lobbying for New Zealand’s position rather than ANZA’s position. So either the original story was the result of very sloppy writing, or ANZA now realises having a Minister of Health lobbying on their behalf rather than for health interests is something to keep to themselves.

As it turns out, ANZA’s wishes were granted. The relevant recommendation adopted by the WHO in May 2010 states:

“Considering resources, benefits and burdens of all stakeholders involved, Member States should consider the most effective approach to reduce marketing to children of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt.”

Given the New Zealand Government’s view that self-regulation by industry is working, this is a victory for advertising and food industry stakeholders, but not for those wanting meaningful steps to reduce the exposure of children to the marketing of unhealthy foods.


References on international initiatives

Where are we now in New Zealand?

The National Party, now the lead party in New Zealand’s government, made it clear in its minority report to the Health Select Committee Inquiry into Obesity and Type 2 Diabetes that it opposes regulating junk food advertising to children.

The Minister of Health seems to be completely on the side of the advertising industry rather than the health sector when it comes to protecting New Zealand children from junk food advertising.

In May 2010 the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) launched a new advertising code – the Children’s Code for Advertising Food.

Like its predecessors, the new code has some fine-sounding principles. But experience with complaints to the Board over recent years shows that these principles are not translated into practices that effectively control the advertising of junk food to children.

The Introduction to the new code states that the “guidelines are examples, by no means exhaustive of how the principles are to be interpreted and applied. Upon considering a complaint, the ASCB [the Complaints Board] is vested with discretion to ensure a commonsense outcome.”

‘Commonsense’, as past experience with the Board has shown, is code for business as usual.

As advertising regulation expert Dr Corinna Hawkes points out, self-regulatory systems such as operated by the ASA in New Zealand are not designed to promote public health. Their purpose is to keep advertising within “acceptable bounds” and to avoid the threat of government regulation. They are not designed or intended to reduce the large swag of advertising directed at children found unacceptable by the New Zealand health sector and public.

Self-regulation of TV advertising is not working, and regulation by government is required.

Find out what FOE thinks about the new code

References on ‘Where are we now?

References


Evidence linking junk TV food advertising and obesity

International evidence

World Cancer Research Fund / American Institute for Cancer Research. Policy and action for cancer prevention. Food, nutrition, and physical activity: A global perspective. Washington DC; 2009.

Hastings G, Stead M, McDermott L, et al. Review of research on the effects of food promotion to children: Final report prepared for the Food Standards Agency. Glasgow: Centre for Social Marketing, University of Strathclyde; 2003.

McGinnis JM, Gootman JA, Kraak VI, eds. Food marketing to children and youth: Threat or opportunity? Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press; 2006.

New Zealand evidence

Wilson N, Signal L, Nicholls S, Thomson G. Marketing fat and sugar to children on New Zealand television. Prev Med. Feb 2006;42(2):96-101.

Hammond KM, Wyllie A, Casswell S. The extent and nature of televised food advertising to New Zealand children and adolescents. Aust N Z J Public Health. Feb 1999;23(1):49-55.

Review of international and New Zealand evidence

FOE (Fight the Obesity Epidemic). Submission on the Review of the Code for Advertising to Children and the Code for Advertising of Food, 2009. (PDF)

Arguments for banning junk food advertising to children

Haby MM, Vos T, Carter R, et al. A new approach to assessing the health benefit from obesity interventions in children and adolescents: the assessing cost-effectiveness in obesity project. Int J Obes. Oct 2006;30(10):1463-1475.

Veerman JL, Van Beeck EF, Barendregt JJ, Mackenbach JP. By how much would limiting TV food advertising reduce childhood obesity? European Journal of Public Health. Mar 26 2009.
Matthews AE. ‘Children and obesity: a pan-European project examining the role of food marketing’. European Journal of Public Health. Feb 2008;18(1):7-11.

New Zealand support for junk food advertising ban

Phoenix Research. Survey of public opinions about advertising food to children; November 2007. (PDF)

BRC Marketing and Social Research. FOE: Omnibus survey results; June 2005. (PDF)

White J. The Health Select Committee Inquiry into Obesity and Type Two Diabetes in New Zealand: An initial analysis of submissions. March 2007. (PDF)

Health Select Committee. Inquiry into obesity and type 2 diabetes in New Zealand: Report of the Health Committee. Wellington: Forty-eighth Parliament; 2007. (PDF)

FOE (Fight the Obesity Epidemic). Submission on the Review of the Code for Advertising to Children and the Code for Advertising of Food 2009.  (PDF)

Industry arguments against advertising restrictions

Schor JB. Born to buy: The commercialized child and the new consumer culture. New York: Scribner; 2004.

(For argument about choice and parental responsibility.)

Advertising Standards Authority. Advertising codes of practice. Wellington: Advertising Standards Authority Inc. and Advertising Standards Complaints Board; 2006.

(For argument about the rights of the child.)

Industry arguments weak

Schor JB. Born to buy: The commercialized child and the new consumer culture. New York: Scribner; 2004.

(For argument about choice and parental responsibility.)

FOE (Fight the Obesity Epidemic). Submission on the Review of the Code for Advertising to Children and the Code for Advertising of Food 2009.  (PDF)

TV Advertising to children: Failure of “self-regulation” in NZ

ThinkTV  TV and Children, Getting it right for children. Wellington, 2011

ThinkTV Children’s programming times, 2011 (PDF)

Broadcasting Standards Authority. Seen and heard: Children’s media use, exposure, and response. Wellington,  May 2008.

Thornley L, Signal L, Thomson G. Does industry regulation of food advertising protect children’s rights? Critical Public Health. 2010;20(1):25-33.

White J. Freedom of choice and the Public Health Bill. July 2008. (PDF)

FOE (Fight the Obesity Epidemic). Submission on the Review of the Code for Advertising to Children and the Code for Advertising of Food 2009.  (PDF)

Shaw C. (Non)regulation of marketing of unhealthy food to children in New Zealand. New Zealand Medical Journal. 2009;122(1288):76-86.

Failure to protect children from junk food advertising in Australia

Choice. Food advertising to children: Who’s the biggest loser. Marrickville, NSW: Choice; 2009. (PDF)

New Zealand’s response to international initiatives

WHO. Prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases: Implementation of the global strategy. 26 November 2009. (PDF)

WHO.  Set of recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children. 2010, WHO: Geneva.

Junk Food Generation website, Update on WHO Executive Board meeting.  Accessed 29 March 2010.

Association of New Zealand Advertisers (ANZA). WHO Recommendations on the Marketing of Foods and Non-Alcoholic Beverages to Children. 2 December 2009. Accessed 11 December 2009.

(ANZA has now changed the story on its website.)

Newton K. Food companies’ tactics ‘as bad as tobacco firms’. Stuff, 9 December 2009;  Accessed 11 December 2009.

Where are we now in New Zealand?

Health Select Committee. Inquiry into obesity and type 2 diabetes in New Zealand: Report of the Health Committee. Wellington: Forty-eighth Parliament; 2007. (PDF)

Hawkes C. Self-regulation of food advertising: what it can, could and cannot do to discourage unhealthy eating habits among children. Nutrition Bulletin. 2005;30:374-382.

ASA. New advertising code focuses on children and food; Media release, 19 May 2010. (scroll down)


ANZA changes the story

On 11 December 2009, the Association of New Zealand Advertisers (ANZA) had the following story on its website:

WHO Recommendations on the Marketing of Foods and Non-Alcoholic Beverages to Children

02 December 2009

Members will be aware that ANZA, together with other members of the Food Industry Group (FIG), met with the Minister of Health Tony Ryall recently to discuss our opinions on the World Health Organisation’s recommendations for food marketing communications for member states.

The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) are closely involved with the WHO on this issue. NZ’s Minister of Health has a regional role in lobbying for our position at a meeting on January 10th 2010 in Geneva.

Many of the WHO recommendations are beyond the policies of FIG and more recent MOH attitudes. We would not support the adoption of several recommendations which are outlined in the attached annex of the release. New Zealand is not bound to adopt WHO policies, even as a member state.

At some stage between 11 December 2009 and 20 April 2010 a single change was made to the webpage. At the later date the second paragraph reads:

The World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) are closely involved with the WHO on this issue. NZ’s Minister of Health has a regional role in lobbying for New Zealand’s position at a meeting on January 10th 2010 in Geneva.

In the original story the Minister of Health was to lobby for ANZA’s position. In the changed story he is to lobby for New Zealand’s position. So either the original story was the result of very sloppy writing, or ANZA now realises having a Minister of Health lobbying on their behalf rather than for health interests is something to keep to themselves.

ANZA has chosen not to disclose it has made this substantial change to the story by leaving the publication date of 2 December 2009 unchanged.

Read the story on ANZA’s website

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