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Junk food ad complaint system a "sham"

Date

Jill Stark

d.leather (03)

A NEW code designed to protect children from online junk food advertising is a "sham" according to public health groups who say nine out of 10 complaints have been dismissed, and products such as Coco Pops and Paddle Pops are deemed ''healthy'' under the system.

In January, the Australian Food and Grocery Council expanded its advertising code to include online marketing, pledging not to promote unhealthy food and drinks to children.

However, the Obesity Policy Coalition say the voluntary system’s failure to crack down on marketing for products high in fat and sugar through promotions clearly designed to appeal to children, proves the industry cannot be trusted to police itself.

Comprising the Cancer Council Victoria, Diabetes Australia, VicHealth and the World Health Organisation Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention at Deakin University, the organisation lodged 10 complaints for promotions they felt breached the code but all but one failed.

Executive officer Jane Martin branded the code ''window dressing'', with companies creating an illusion of responsible marketing while increasingly using online games, apps, competitions and social media to engage young people.

''There’s real concern around this targeting of children because they can interact with these games, they’re very seductive, it’s not clear that it’s marketing, and parents are often unaware it’s happening. We’ve been waiting a long time for new media to be explicitly covered by these codes and now they are we find out the system is really just as useless as with traditional media.''

Ms Martin said websites, games and apps were tools to increase brand recognition and encourage consumption.

One of the complaints about a KFC online game - which they argued appealed to young gamers and rewarded players with vouchers for chicken nuggets - was dismissed as not being primarily directed towards children.

Complaints are adjudicated by the Advertising Standards Board but must be assessed within the parameters of the industry’s code.

It states that companies can only advertise products that represent ''healthier dietary choices'', and promotions must also include messages around healthy diets and physical exercise.

Individual companies determine what constitutes healthy. While a complaint about a ''Coco Beats'' website to help children learn about music and rhythm was upheld because it did not actively promote healthy diets, under the code Coco Pops are deemed a ''healthier choice'' despite being 35 per cent sugar because the product meets Kellogg's own nutritional standards.  (Each company is able to determine its own definition of nutrition under the regulatory system.)

In response to a complaint about Paddle Pops - which, with 13.5 grams of sugar in each serve is also considered healthy - Unilever said it had reformulated the brand to contain 34 per cent less saturated fat and 27 per cent fewer  kilojoules per serve.

However, Ms Martin said there were too many loopholes undermining the strength of the system.

An online promotion for a  ''Wizz Fizz Club'', was created by a company that had not signed up to the code, while another complaint was against an organisation that  had a parent company overseas and was therefore not obliged to adhere to the regulations.

A complaint about a Cottee’s cordial website, which contained games, competitions and a function where users can ''mix up'' a music video using versions of the Cottee’s jingle, could not be considered as it was deemed to not be advertising or marketing material. Concerns about a Nesquik, ''Bunnyfier'' app allowing users to add bunny ears to photos was also dismissed as apps are not covered by the code.

''To expect a member of the public to find their way through the complex criteria of what does and doesn’t breach the code, puts a lot of pressure back on parents to try and protect their children when really it’s the responsibility of these companies to do what they said they’d do and that’s not market to children,'' Ms Martin said.

James Mathews, spokesman for the Australian Food and Grocery Council, said in a statement:

''These commitments are far more stringent than those found in the EU, US and under the international voluntary commitment.  They require the product to be a healthier choice and the advertisement to promote good dietary habits and physical activity. Companies nominate an appropriate nutrition criteria such as the NSW Schools Canteen Criteria which is determined independently of industry.''

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