by Andrea Western,

You’d be forgiven for thinking that food advertising to children is not regulated in Australia. That’s because our current system is voluntary, self-regulatory and operated by the food and advertising industries. It’s seriously defective.

With one in four Australian children now overweight or obese, allowing big food companies to continue to bombard kids with ads about junk food is irresponsible.

So what's the problem?

Industry codes include two major flaws – in order for the codes to be applicable, junk food advertisements must be

1. directed primarily to children and

2. must pass a health test.

How do they test if something is primarily targeted at children?

The ‘directed primarily to children’ test set out in industry codes is extremely difficult to meet. An advertisement is marketed to children where the content of the advertisement (i.e. visuals, theme and language) are directed primarily to children, where children represent more than 35% of the audience or where the advertisement is broadcast during programs that are directed primarily to children

In terms of content, the advertisement’s visuals, themes and language must also appeal to children ‘in the first instance,’ that is, they cannot be of appeal to both children and adults. This means that ads that use marketing tools such as cartoons, animations and children’s themes are often considered to appeal to a ‘broader audience’ or to an adult’s whimsical nostalgia for childhood, despite clearly being designed to attract the attention of children.

Child lying on the floor

Here's an example -

Coco Pops is ‘the tasty cereal that kids have loved for generations’, but it’s also a ‘cereal’ offender in this space. Kellogg’s advertisements for Coco Pops and LCM’s often circumvent the ‘directed primarily to children’ test by including references to or voice overs aimed at the main grocery buyer.

LiveLighter recently made a complaint about an ad for Coco Pops that was broadcast over 1000 times between March 2016 and February 2017.

The Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) considered the complaint, noting that the advertisement featured ‘magical’ animated cereal that ‘took on a genie like quality as it manoeuvred the trolley around the shop’ to take milk from the fridge. The ASB said that the content was not directed primarily to children on the basis that the advertisement was of appeal to adults and children of all ages.

While this finding was disappointing, the advertisement did pass ‘directed primarily to children’ test as it was aired during a number of programs, such as ‘We Bare Bears’ and ‘Harriet the Spy’, which were directed in the first instance to children under 12.

How do they test if a food is healthy?

The health test is similarly problematic in that the codes enable companies to generate their own definition of a ‘healthier dietary choice.’ This means that Coco Pops was, under the Kellogg’s action plan, deemed a ‘healthier dietary choice’, despite being nearly 37% sugar. However, the Coco Pops advertisement failed the second aspect of the test in that it did not reference a healthy lifestyle because it did not encourage good dietary habits or physical activity.

Kellogg’s was found to breach the industry code, but under the current voluntary system, there are no fines or penalties can be awarded and the ASB has no powers to prevent Kellogg’s from engaging in further breaches through broadcasting of the same ad.

What should be done?

Urgent action is required by the federal government to implement robust regulation of advertising to children that applies to all channels of communication to restrict both content and placement, includes clear definitions of key terms and is adequately monitored with meaningful penalties.

And there is strong support for the Australian Government to take action in this area: 87 per cent of adult grocery buyers want the Government to regulate unhealthy food advertising broadcast on free-to-air television[1].

How can you get involved?

The LiveLighter team is always on the lookout for advertising to children that breaches industry codes. If you see a television or social media advertisement for an unhealthy food product that may be directed to children (or is broadcast during a children’s show), take note of the:

  • Product
  • Date and time
  • Channel
  • Program
  • Web link (if available)

and send the details to :

With your help, we can create meaningful regulation around marketing, and protect kids from junk food advertising.

[1] A national survey conducted by Cancer Council Victoria in 2012 of 1,521 adult grocery buyers

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