How long will the Australian Government let the fast-food industry play by its own rules when it comes to advertising junk food to children? How long can it ignore techniques used to promote fast-food meals, fostering pester power with cartoon characters and toys and continue to support self-regulation as a workable solution?

The most recent example is a Hungry Jack’s campaign promoting a “Kids Club Meal” of three chicken nuggets and a bottle of water, together with a free Simpsons toy. The hamburger giant’s latest ad has exposed the charade of self-regulation by flouting an earlier Advertising Standards Board (ASB) determination that this Kids Club Meal was too unhealthy to be advertised to children. This highlights how ineffective the self-regulatory rules (which Hungry Jack’s helped to develop) and the ASB (which ordered the withdrawal of the Kids Club Meal ad) are in protecting children from exploitation by junk food marketers.

A bit of background. You may remember in June last year that advertisers and fast-food companies launched rules on marketing fast-food to children with huge fanfare.  The new Quick Service Restaurant Initiative for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children included major fast-food advertisers — Hungry Jack’s, McDonald’s and KFC among others.  At the time the initiative was touted by the head of the Advertising Federation of Australia, Scott McLennan, as a “fairly comprehensive solution for the issue of responsible advertising of healthier choices to children”.  The initiative was in response to concerns that the National Preventative Health Taskforce would recommend, as it did, controls on unhealthy food marketing to children.

And on the face of it, the new controls looked promising: criteria for upper levels of salt, fat and sugar, which would ensure that only “healthier” products could be marketed to children, and restrictions on the use of popular personalities and cartoon characters to promote unhealthy food to children, among others.

Hungry Jack’s also developed a company action plan outlining its commitment to the new guidelines: including the stipulation that advertising would meet the nutritional requirements for advertising to children under the age of 14.

So, how is it tracking?  Not that well for some it seems.  Already, the ASB, which oversees the initiative, has found that one large junk-food advertiser is having difficulty in meeting its own guidelines.  At the end of last year a Hungry Jack’s ad, shown after new controls came in, was found to breach the initiative because the children’s meal did not meet the nutritional guidelines it agreed to under the initiative. The Kids Club Meal promoted in the ad — consisting of three chicken nuggets and a bottle of water — was too high in saturated fat. The ad also starred SpongeBob SquarePants cartoon character and friends, another contravention of the new rules.

So what did the company do? The ad was already off the air, but it had already been seen by thousands of children and the damage had been done. The company did admit that the meal breached the nutritional guidelines. In its response to a complaint made to the ASB, Hungry Jack’s said:

We cannot deny that the meal promoted in this TVC did not fully comply with the guidelines as stated in the initiative, however as the initiative came into effect during the production of this activity, we did make some last-minute changes to the meal advertised to make it the most appropriate we could at the time.  (See Hungry Jack’s response and the ASB’s ruling here)

(As an aside, it is hard to believe that Hungry Jack’s actually runs the line that three chicken nuggets and a bottle of water is a meal — it is described as a side dish on its website. It also beggars belief that Hungry Jack’s suggests that a meal  that contains no vegetables or fruit and is high in saturated fat represents healthy eating for children.)

But rather than developing a new, healthier children’s meal, it has released a new ad promoting exactly the same Kids Club Meal — only this time the four Simpsons family members and a free Simpsons toy are the stars of the show.

Since November 2009, when the ASB ruled the chicken nugget meal inappropriate to advertise to children, the new Simpsons ad has run more than 300 times on major commercial TV stations across Australia — during peak children’s viewing periods and shows, such as Toasted TV.

The ASB has no power to enforce its rulings. If it upholds a complaint, it can ask that the advertisement be withdrawn, but there is nothing to compel the advertiser to do this.  The best possible outcome in this case is that a further complaint about the same issues will again be upheld by the ASB, and Hungry Jack’s will again be asked to withdraw its advertisement. But by this time, if Hungry Jack’s chooses to comply with the ruling, the advertisement will have already been shown hundreds of times and been seen by thousands of children. This will be just another slap over the wrist with a feather, and will not stop Hungry Jack’s or other fast food advertisers continuing to ignore their own rules.

The fox should not be left in charge of the hen house. It is time that the responsibility and oversight is taken out of the hands of those with a vested interest in advertising and marketing junk food to children, and put into the hands of an agency that will not only put the health and welfare of children front and centre but also have the remit to ensure that companies play by the rules.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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