McDonald’s, food industry criticised over marketing to kids

The Australian food industry has come in for fresh criticism from health officials for continuing to market unhealthy products to children.

In a report from the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC), fast food retailers, including McDonald’s, have been called out for failing to protect children from exposure to junk food marketing, despite the introduction of self-regulated codes in 2009 that promised to do just that.

OPC Executive Manager, Jane Martin, claims that the bar is set “too low”, with children being exposed to junk food advertising across all formats of technology.

Ms Martin also raised concerns in light of research that shows there has been no reduction in unhealthy food marketing to children on TV between 2011 and 2015.

“Under the current codes, food companies and fast food chains can easily argue an advertisement isn’t directed primarily at children, even if it still blatantly appeals to kids,” she said.

“For example, it has been argued that advertisements with childlike animations and images are targeting adults – as they invoke nostalgia – rather than children.

“The food industry claims to be compliant – even successful – in adhering to these codes, but the bar is set so low that self-proclaimed success means little. The industry is effectively setting its own homework, and then giving itself top marks.

“Kids are also exposed to a lot of junk food marketing online in highly targeted ways that are entertaining and fun, but also manipulative.

“When they use social media, play games, use apps and watch videos, kids can be entertained, they can interact and create content, and they can share things with their friends.

“These self-regulated codes don’t do enough to protect kids in these activities and mediums and it’s really hard for parents to see what’s going on.”

The research published by OPC echoes the research led by the University of Adelaide released earlier in 2018, which showed that Aussie children were exposed to over 800 junk food TV ads every year, leading to a higher likelihood of obesity and cardiovascular issues.

“It’s time for government to step in and support families and communities to raise healthy children, free from the negative influence of junk food marketing,” said Ms Martin.

The OPC report, labelled Overbranded, Underprotected, highlights that the food industry’s marketing codes don’t account for areas such as:

  • Sports sponsorships such as McDonald’s Little Athletics
  • Packaging, including popular cartoon characters and animations (e.g. Minions, Coco-Pops monkey, or Disney-branded foods
  • free toys and other giveaways (including Happy Meals and Kinder Surprise)

The report also notes that age limits are set at a maximum of 14, with older children not covered by any regulation. And that the food industry codes are voluntary, with many companies not signing up

The report also outlines possible actions to counter the negative effects of junk food advertising and influencing, including clear definitions of unhealthy food, restrictions on what can be advertised, and introducing disincentives and sanctions for breaches.

“It is naïve to entrust our children’s health to the same companies that are actively encouraging them to consumer junk foods,” said Ms Martin.

“The end goal of the food industry will always be to make more profit.”

Childhood obesity levels

With the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare reporting that one in four Aussie kids (aged between two and 17) were overweight or obese in 2014-15, parents and carers are encouraged to keep a close eye on what children are exposed to on television and social media.

The report explains that platforms such as YouTube, SnapChat and Instagram are utilised by the big food companies and fast food chains to hone in on younger audiences – further implying that regulation is playing catch up to technology.

At the time of writing, no comment has been made by the major fast food chains or food industry representatives in regards to the reports findings.

The OPC is a partnership between Cancer Council Victoria, Diabetes Victoria and the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University.

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