Monday night’s Media Watch program exposed not only the complete inadequacy of the current self-regulation around junk food marketing to children but also the charade of the industry’s response.  The program added further weight to the increasing raft of evidence that despite claims by the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) that food advertising on children’s television has “virtually ceased” — advertisers are still unashamedly marketing to children.

As highlighted in Media Watch, ads for a huge range of junk, including Coke, McDonald’s, KFC, Hungry Jack’s, Mars Bars, Snickers and Twix, are being shown during the highest-rating programs for young kids, including Junior MasterChef and The Simpsons. A recent study by a Sydney University research group found that children see the same amount of junk food advertising as they did before the introduction of the AFGC’s Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative.

There’s a certain irony to the fact that advertisers are making inflated claims about how they don’t advertise to children.

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The piece de resistance in this regard is the Nestle-Sky News advertorial series in which Nestle outline a raft of initiatives demonstrating their corporate social responsibility including work in developing countries and good nutrition.

In one of these advertorials former journalist Patrick Lindsay asks Nestle’s director of marketing communications, Ian Alwill, about his company’s  “responsible” marketing to children policy:

Patrick Lindsay: “We’re here with Ian Alwill from Nestle and we’re talking about marketing to kids. Ian, where does Nestle stand on this important issue?”

Ian Alwill: “Well, we have a Nestle Nutritional Foundation based on criteria set by the World Health Organisation and the US Medical Institute. What that means for us is that until a Nestle food or beverage product typically consumed by kids meets our nutritional criteria, we won’t advertise it.”

Patrick Lindsay: “Ian, do these criteria apply to everything?”

Ian Alwill: “Ah yes, they apply to all our usual marketing activities — kids promotions, online activity, everything …”

If these statements are anything to go by, Nestle’s claims to be a responsible corporate citizen should be greeted with more than a healthy dose of scepticism.

Alwill claims that Nestle does not market products to children unless they meet their nutrition criteria — which he boasts are based on criteria set by the World Health Organisation and US Institute of Medicine.

So why is Nestle continuing to target children with a range of promotions for Smarties and Allen’s lollies and  high-sugar breakfast cereals Milo and Nesquik?

Let’s look at  what Nestle is marketing: A new TV ad for Smarties, broadcast during high-rating kids’ programs, such as The Simpsons, Modern Family and The X Factor shows kids working with artists to create artworks inspired by their favourite Smarties colours. The kids dance, jump up and down, and dress up in bright Smarties-coloured costumes. There is also a Smarties website with a Smarties colouring-in competition open only to children aged 3-10.

An ad for Allen’s lollies, also shown during shows such as MasterChef, Dancing With the Stars and The Biggest Loser, features a huge walking bubble-blowing doll. The doll blows bubbles that turn into Allen’s lollies as they land in children’s hands, and children’s nursery rhyme This Old Man plays in the background.

Boxes of Nesquik cereal have been plastered with pictures of every child’s favourite green ogre, Shrek , and promoted Shrek colour-in characters — Shrek, Donkey, Princess Fiona or Puss in Boots — free in every box!

Nestle brand Milo sponsors Kanga Cricket, Liz Ellis’ school holiday netball clinics, and kids’ snow schools.

Smarties contain 66% sugar and 19% fat. Allen’s jelly lollies are about half sugar. Nesquik and Milo cereal  contain more than 30% sugar. These are hardly products that the World Health Organisation or the US Institute of Medicine would recommend as healthy choices for children.

Nestle is not the only food company to be making dubious claims about its promotional practices.

In response to a recent complaint from the Obesity Policy Coalition about an ad for Oreos biscuits, Kraft Foods informed the Advertising Standards Board that it “is committed to responsible marketing of foods and beverages”, and that the ad, which featured two schoolboys in a schoolyard pulling apart and licking Oreos, was “not directed primarily to children”.  This was despite it being broadcast during children’s shows such as Dora the Explorer, Go, Diego! Go! and The Sleepover Club. (See Kraft’s response to the complaint and the Advertising Standards Board’s decision here.

The Advertising Standards Board also made some questionable statements in its decision.

It said that it had “considered the visuals, language and theme of the advertisement” (visuals: primary school children in a schoolyard; language: schoolboys talking to each other; theme: boys playing a game with Oreos), and “noted the media schedule and placement” for the ad (children’s programs such as Dora the Explorer). But ultimately the board decided that the ad was not “specifically directed or designed to be appealing to children” or “broadcast during programs that are likely to have a significant child audience”.

The Advertising Standards Bureau has asked the board to reconsider this decision following a request for a review of the decision by the Obesity Policy Coalition (See Age article about the Oreos decision here.

The Australian Food and Grocery Council claims that food advertising on children’s television has “virtually ceased” following the introduction of its Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative, but recent food advertising on TV suggests this is another industry claim that requires greater scrutiny. In the end though it is action that speaks truly louder than words — and surely we’ve had enough talking already.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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