Children should be protected from exploitative marketing techniques used on the internet, according to a new report from the International Obesity Task Force.
The IOTF, part of the International Association for the Study of Obesity (IASO), said that food companies are getting round self-imposed restrictions on advertising by using the internet as a primary means of communication.
As a result, this week's International Congress on Obesity in Sydney, Australia was most notable for IASO's demand for a ban on all advertising of junk foods aimed at children.
Shift in opposition
This represents a marked shift in opposition towards junk food advertising to incorporate new forms of media. In the IOTF report unveiled at the conference, the pressure group talked about the dangers of the cumulative effect of intense marketing to children.
There has of course been a great deal of pressure on the industry to limit junk food advertising to kids. In the UK for example, Ofcom, the UK's advertising watchdog, published a number of proposals for consultation on this matter in March.
All those options had two things in common: a ban on food and drink advertising or sponsorship to pre-school children and a set of eight rules about the content of food and drink advertising set out by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice (BCAP).
The food industry believes it has taken responsible action in light of these recommendations. In July, a coalition of UK food, soft drink and advertising industries signed and submitted a response to Ofcom's consultation on food marketing to children.
The Better Balance initiative, which was submitted by the coalition last week, favours the last of four options set out by the UK advertising regulatory body. This fourth option was in essence an invitation to propose a workable and effective option that commands industry support.
"This package represents a very significant set of proposals from the overwhelming majority of industry," said Andrew Brown, director general of the Advertising Association (AA).
"We are committed to playing our part in tackling childhood obesity and we accept the need for new restrictions on food advertising to children. Ofcom's research showed that advertising has only a 2 percent influence on a child's food preferences and our package therefore delivers a proportionate, balanced response that will be good news for parents."
Marketing is unregulated
But IOTF argues that such restrictions are not watertight, as the marketing of junk food is unregulated within the sphere of the internet.
"At the moment, the need to protect children from commercial exploitation is being largely overlooked by the food and advertising industries," said professor Boyd Swinburn, president of the Australasian Society for the Study of Obesity.
Indeed Dr Tim Lobstein, coordinator of the IOTF's childhood obesity working group, and author of the new IOTF report, claimed there was powerful evidence of the way in which advertising games on the internet were being used to bypass even the present minimal standards of conduct adopted by food and beverage advertisers.
He cited research undertaken by the Kaiser Family Foundation in the USA, which contended that 85 percent of businesses advertising to children on television also had interactive websites for children promoting branded products. These incorporated not only games but also promotions, using viral marketing techniques, membership opportunities, as well as movie and television tie-ins.
Young kids visit commercial sites
Lobstein said that over 12,2 million children had visited commercial websites promoting food and beverage products over a three-month monitoring period last year. In the UK, the Food Commission found that most major food brands had sites designed to attract children as young as six years old.
And a team of marketing experts from the Middlesex University Business School concluded in their report, Analysing Advergames: Active Diversions or Actually Deception, that "advertisers appear to forget the promises as soon as they are advertising online".
"As such, they are in breach of the spirit of the current self-regulatory provisions that apply to other forms of marketing communications."
But some would argue that the food industry must clearly adapt to the challenges of modern communication if consumer confidence and loyalty are to be regained, making internet activity inevitable. Keith Taylor, a director of the corporate practice at Porter Novelli, a leading international PR agency, emphasised the fact that communication with consumers was now more important than ever.
"We have to be open," he wrote in FoodNavigator last month. "We need to be joined up in our communications involving other parties, within and beyond the food industry. Get the communication right and I believe we are increasingly pushing at an open door with consumers."
Nonetheless, the IOTF hopes that its proposals will now be considered by members of the Global Prevention Alliance. The Alliance includes the World Heart Federation, the International Diabetes Federation, the International Pediatric Association and the International Union of Nutritional Sciences, led by IASO. - (Decision News Media, September 2006)
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