2014 has seen a series of subtle but significant changes to the voluntary codes governing the advertising of food and beverage products to children in Australia. Developments included the introduction of a Practice Note to inform the application of the Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) Code of Advertising and Marketing Communications to Children in April 2014, and changes to elements of the packaged and fast food industries’ voluntary codes in January 2014. These changes may purport to reflect industry efforts to keep pace with emerging issues (such as new online and device-based advertising technologies). Public health advocates remain critical of the self-regulatory codes as a means of protecting children from harmful advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages.
More than 25 complaints were submitted to the Advertising Standards Board regarding advertisments for foods and beverages alleged to target children in 2013 and 2014. Case studies from the resulting decisions were analysed to gain insight into trends in food and beverage advertising to children. Implications for future regulatory policy were considered.
The analysis showed that recent changes to the codes appear to have weaken the protections in place for children. Two important developments highlighted were: the narrowing of the definition of advertising that is considered “directed primarily to children”, with findings suggesting the rules are increasingly permissive of a range of child-oriented techniques; and the change whereby advertisers themselves now define the criteria by which products are assessed to be “healthier” (and therefore able to be advertised to children). Australia’s self-regulatory system governing food and beverage advertising to children is not consistent the WHO Set of Recommendations on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children 2010.
The analysis suggests that the protections afforded by self-regulation of advertising have been eroded by amendments made unilaterally to the voluntary codes by advertisers. These observeations add to the growing imperative to improve controls on advertising food to children in Australia.