News / Children's Food Campaign

Loopholes in children's protection from junk food ads exposed

New research finds companies, including Asda, Kellogg's, KFC and McDonald's, getting away with advertising foods high in fat, salt or sugar to children online.

Image © Obesity Health Alliance

Image © Obesity Health Alliance

According to new research published on 6 June 2019 by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and Committee for Advertising Practices (CAP), almost 1,000 adverts for foods high in fat, salt or sugar (HFSS) were served to researchers browsing websites using child avatars over a single two week period in late 2018. This is despite rules meant to protect children from online marketing of unhealthy food.

The findings

Eight brands (Asda, Kellogg's, KFC, KP Snacks, Lidl, Marks & Spencer, McDonald's and Pringles) have been admonished by the industry self-regulator following research in which child avatars were created to simulate child interests and behaviour online and test the robustness of the current rules.

Of 41,030 adverts seen by researchers using the child avatars in just two weeks:

  • Over 940 adverts (2.3%) were for HFSS products
  • One third (13 out of 39) of the dedicated children's websites monitored were found to have shown one or more advert for an HFSS product.
  • 55 out of 87 YouTube channels watched by children were found to have broadcast adverts meant to be restricted from under-16s

Barbara Crowther, Co-ordinator of the Children's Food Campaign, says,

"This research by the Advertising Standards Authority provides yet more evidence that current regulations have more loopholes in them than a box of Cheerios. That nearly 1,000 ads were found in just one two week period by a small number of child avatars shows that neither the current rules, or the systems designed to enforce them, are good enough. The government must now extend tighter advertising regulations, including a 9pm watershed on all foods high in fat, salt and sugar across all types of digital media and all channels. It's about time real penalties such as fines were imposed on any companies breaking the rules." 

ASA fails to ban chocolate ad aimed at kids

The Children's Food Campaign has been pointing to loopholes in rules that continue to allow junk food ads outside nurseries and children's centres, on YouTube channels known to be popular with children and teens. On 5 June, the ASA also published that it had not upheld a complaint lodged by the Children's Food Campaign on Cadbury's Secret Santa campaign despite agreeing that it was clearly an HFSS product ad and promotional offer, and that the creative direction of the advert would definitely have appeal for children. 

Take Action Today!  Tell the Government you support a 9pm junk food ad watershed for all TV, online and digital media - use our e-action to send an email in response to the current Government consultation.

The Children's Food Campaign calls for

- A comprehensive 9pm watershed across all forms of digital media, without any exemptions or exceptions

- Equivalent restrictions for other types of outdoor, print media that would reduce child exposure to HFSS adverts, including reviewing the current 25% child audience threshold

- A ban on the use of licenced and brand mascot child-friendly cartoon characters on packaging of foods high in fat, salt or sugar, and closing of loopholes in existing CAP regulations that currently grant more freedoms to brand mascot characters to advertise.

- Penalties to be imposed for companies found to be in breach of regulations

- More powers to be devolved to local authorities to be able to restrict unhealthy food marketing in public spaces

For more information:

- Read the ASA report on banning ads for HFSS food appearing on children's media

- Read the letter from Children's Food Campaign to the ASA regarding the Cadbury Secret Santa complaint

Published 6 Jun 2019

Children's Food Campaign: Better food and food teaching for children in schools, and protection of children from junk food marketing are the aims of Sustain's high-profile Children's Food Campaign. We also want clear food labelling that can be understood by everyone, including children.

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