Websites – the new frontier of junk food advertising?

In 2011, we were disgusted at the Advertising Standards Board (ASB) decision that a McDonald’s Happy Meal website was not in breach of the industry code on marketing to children, because it was not considered to be an advertisement. Many of you signed a petition started by our friends at Junkbusters, disagreeing with this ruling.

We don’t want to give the answer away too quickly, but you used your voice and won! We asked Wendy Watson from Cancer Council NSW to explain how the ASB was forced to make another ruling and the changing role of websites in advertising to children…

Electronic media is moving much faster than many of us can keep up with, although our kids probably can! And that’s why the internet and social media are the latest food marketing frontier. You might not be aware of all the free games, find-a-word puzzles, colouring-in pages and brightly coloured characters all over some fast food and many snack and confectionery websites? But chances are your kids will be.

It’s the age old art of marketing; engage your audience with your brand. Except now children are immersed in a creative, branded environment where they can interact and are encouraged to participate in peer-to-peer marketing, most commonly through the ‘like’ button.

The regulation of online marketing through existing industry codes can at best be described as scant. For example, food companies can promote any food through their own website but not on other’s websites. The body that administers complaints regarding these industry advertising codes, the Advertising Standards Board, has acknowledged that many of these sites are aimed at children, however because of the wording and loopholes in the self-regulatory codes and initiatives, companies can continue to engage and promote their brands to children.

One website was recently found in breach of these self-regulations with the Advertising Standards Board upholding a complaint about the McDonald’s Happy Meal website.

Some of you may remember the history behind this complaint. An initial complaint, filed over a year ago by the Obesity Policy Coalition, was dismissed. Back then the Advertising Standards Board ruled that the McDonald’s Happy Meal website – which promoted free toys with kids’ meals, spruiked birthday parties at its restaurants, featured fun games and cartoon characters including McDonalds own licensed characters – did not constitute marketing!

In response to this determination, Parents Jury members contributed to a Cancer Council NSW petition with 510 signatories disputing this decision. We included the petition in a letter to the Advertising Standards Board who responded that they would not reconsider the original complaint as the website had not changed.

In making the 2011 ruling, the Board stated that microsites directed to children should avoid any reference to particular products and minimise organisational promotion. Cancer Council NSW submitted a new complaint in May this year because we felt McDonald’s had ignored this caution by adding the iconic red Happy Meal box to all web pages and including even more McDonald’s characters. This time the complaint was upheld.

Did the pressure of the community help change their opinion?

The Advertising Standards Board says that they consider “prevailing community standards”, so we can only assume that it was the support of 510 community members that convinced the Advertising Standards Board to change its mind, as the successful complaint and earlier complaint both argued that the website was being used to target children.

As marketers and advertisers continue to feel pressure from public health organisations and concerned parents who are urging for regulation across TV stations, the marketing focus is changing and tactics are moving online. Cancer Council wants the Government to step up and introduce stronger regulations across traditional and online media so there are no loopholes that can be manipulated by food marketers to target children.

Much needs to be done to reverse Australia’s rising obesity rates but it’s critical that we as a society play our part in protecting today’s children from the unhealthy influence of junk food advertising so that they don’t become tomorrow’s health statistics.

For more information visit Aspects of this blog featured in The Conversation.

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