Crackdown on children's ads
 

Carmel Egan

Sydney Morning Herald
June 10, 2007

GIANT food corporations are cancelling advertisements and radically changing the way they target youngsters to try to head off advertising as a major federal election issue.

Food manufacturers and the advertising industry fear that British-style laws banning junk food promotions and celebrity endorsements during children's television programs will be introduced in Australia.

Such changes could see images of Spider-Man, Shrek, the Wiggles, My Little Pony and Strawberry Shortcake banned from breakfast cereal packs and giveaways at fast food outlets such as McDonald's.

Kraft, Nestle, Heinz and Masterfoods have been alerted to possible changes, particularly if the ALP wins the election.

Kraft has already killed off the teddy bear used to promote its peanut butter, and last week a major confectionery company website was closed down when the Australian Association of National Advertisers said it breached the industry code on children's advertising.

Health experts have long been concerned about the role of "pester power" where children see an ad for junk food and nag their parents to buy it and childhood obesity. About one in four Australian children is overweight.

Zoe McCallum, a pediatrician at the Royal Children's Hospital, said Australia had a high level of food advertising directed at children.

"Australia pounds its children with more children's fast food advertising per hour during children's viewing times then any other country on this planet more then America and the UK," she said.

Federal Opposition health spokeswoman Nicola Roxon yesterday confirmed that the Labor Party was concerned about the use of toys and licensed characters such as Disney figures or celebrities to promote foods to children.

"We are certainly focused on the toys and premiums because we do believe they are some of the things which take away a parent's ability to choose for their kids," Ms Roxon said. "Even licensed characters add to pester power.

"A lot of the food manufacturers are taking action themselves. A lot see themselves as being part of the solution to childhood obesity."

Ms Roxon said the issues went further than free-to-air television, with children being influenced by promotions through SMS, the internet and pay TV.

"It would be better for the future to look more broadly and not focus just on kids' TV times, which is very narrow," she said.

What the food manufacturing and advertising industries most fear is a British-style ban on junk food advertising to children.

Ofcom, the British media regulator, last month banned the advertising of food high in fat, salt and sugar during children's television programs. It has also banned celebrity endorsement of foods that appeal to children.

"There is a big push coming, and those not on board with health and wellbeing will be left behind," Kraft spokesman Simon Talbot said. "We have stopped advertising to under six-year-olds."

Nick Goddard, the spokesman for Unilever, which makes Streets ice-cream and Paddle Pops, said he would not be surprised if regulations were changed.

In a discussion paper on Children's Television Standards, due next month, state and territory health ministers are also expected to call for tougher restrictions on the broader types of advertising allowed during "C" (children) and "P" (preschooler) television programs.

But AANA chairman Collin Segelor said he did not believe the Federal Government would bring in new advertising regulations, as the industry had already demonstrated responsible self-regulation.

"The federal Minister for Health has said he does not intend to go down that road," he said.

He denied that food manufacturers aimed at pre-schoolers, because advertisements were already banned during "P" programs. But a spokeswoman for the Coalition on Food Advertising to Children, Kaye Mehta, said it was a furphy to cite regulations banning advertising to children under six.

"There is no advertising allowed in "P" programs but that amounts to half-an-hour a day and children watch about five times that," she said. "It is open slather for advertising and 50 to 80 per cent of food advertising is of unhealthy foods."

Ms Mehta called for the Federal Government to follow the British example, which bans using celebrities and sports stars in marketing to children.