Junk food marketers target kids with dirty tricks

By Anita Awbi

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Soft drinks Advertising Nutrition

Snack food advertisers should be banned from targeting children
with underhand advertising campaigns that parents are oblivious to,
says a new report.

A study by UK consumer watchdog Which? has revealed marketing devices used to persuade children to demand high-fat high-sugar junk foods are undermining their parents' efforts to curb fat, sugar and salt consumption.

From branded playgrounds to celebrity endorsements, food manufacturers are taking advantage of the government's discretionary marketing code of conduct, ahead of possible legislation that may be introduced in 2007.

"Recently we have seen soft drinks companies change their tack in the UK, and this is a step in the right direction. But we need a roots and branch system to prevent irresponsible marketing across the board,"​ said Michelle Smyth of the Which? food campaign team.

"In the Choosing Health white paper from 2004 the government said it was committed to improve the marketing of junk foods to children. It would give the industry so long to self-regulate and if that wasn't adhered to it would bring in change,"​ she explained.

"But we need meaningful action, and we are pressurising the government to deliver."

Which? and the Food Commission have identified more than 40 irresponsible publicity tricks that use new media technologies to target children in every facet of their lives.

Some are so sophisticated that parents may be powerless to stop their influence, the watchdog warns.

"It can be incredibly difficult to protect your child. While at home, shopping, playing and even at school, children are constantly bombarded with calculated marketing messages encouraging them to eat more junk food,"​ said Which? chief policy advisor Sue Davies.

"Such reckless marketing undermines efforts to improve children's diets."

The report found that the internet is medium of choice for advertisers, as 92 per cent of nine to 19 year olds now have access to the internet at school, and 75 per cent go online at home.

On the popular Neopets website, the largest virtual pet site on the internet, a Pepsi World game urges players to race to serve customers 'delicious Pepsi in order to keep them happy'. The site is also used by McDonalds to promote its Happy Meals.

Other marketing tricks centre round mobile phones, isolating children in a covert manner. Text marketing, known as SMS marketing, is seen as a highly effective way of reaching children in a format and language they understand.

And given that nine out of ten British children now carry mobile phones, blanket coverage of a whole generation, while bypassing the parents, becomes easy.

Which? has written to Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt MP, calling on her to step in and prepare new legislation for 2007, as the voluntary code of conduct system continues to fail.

The watchdog has also kick-started a Kids' Food campaign for responsible marketing that is encouraging parents to get involved and pile pressure on the advertisers.

But last week soft drinks firms announced they will voluntarily ban advertising to children across the European Union in an effort to curb public criticism amid the bloc's growing obesity problem.

The Union of European Beverages Associations (Unesda) said its members, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cadbury Schweppes among others, would stop advertising soft drinks to children under the age of 12.

This follows moves by McDonalds to introduce healthy snack options to its Happy Meal menu, offering carrot sticks, fresh orange juice and apples to the usual burger and chips staples.

Meanwhile, nearly one third of two to 15 year-olds in England are now classed as overweight or obese.

And International Obesity Task Force (IOFT) figures released last March show the number of overweight European kids is rising by 400,000 a year, while in excess of 200 million adults across the EU may now be overweight or obese.

Research has shown the eating patterns that cause obesity begin in childhood, with evidence growing that people's lifelong eating habits are largely in place before they are 10 years old.

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