Are the rules for marketing food to children tough enough?

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Little girl buying yogurt in supermarket. Child in supermarket select products from store showcase. Concept for children selecting milk products in shop.

Recently FMCG giant Unilever announced that it will stop marketing and advertising its products to children by the end of 2020 in a bid to tackle rising obesity rates. Does this shift mark a revolution in how brands market to children, or are there enough safeguards in place already to protect them? Our Managing Director, Shelley Davies shares her Point of View.

Unilever has announced via its website that it will no longer use celebrities, social media influencers and cartoon characters in its marketing, and that it will also stop advertising food and drink to children under 12 in traditional media, or those below 13 in social media.

The move goes well beyond CAP’s HFSS rules and may be a kneejerk reaction to an upheld ASA Ruling that Unilever received last year for Ben & Jerry’s ice cream ads placed close to schools. Unilever stated that they will launch the new principles with their ice cream brands. Most notably, their Walls’s brand will implement a ‘Responsibly Made for Kids’ promise meaning that much-loved children’s treats including Twisters and Mini Milk will contain no more than 110 calories and a maximum of 12g of sugar per portion.


Background on HFSS

January 2016:  World Health Organisation statistics find that 18% of adolescents and children were overweight and equates the marketing of unhealthy foods directly to the problem.

January 2017: Government launch a plan for action against childhood obesity

July 2017: CAP Code introduces measures to restrict the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS)

April 2018: Government introduces “Sugar Tax” soft drink levy

June 2018: Government launches its childhood obesity plan for action Chapter Two

February 2019: Transport for London launch new rules banning “junk food advertising” on its network.

March 2019: Government launch consultation on further HFSS advertising restrictions on TV and online.

June 2019: ASA and IAB both respond to government consultation that further reducing HFSS ads, particularly a watershed option, would have little impact on childhood obesity rates. Both contend that the current system of regulation via the CAP Code is sufficient and effective.

August 2019: Stephen Woodford, CEO of Advertising Association writes to Boris Johnson asking new PM to rethink further restrictions on HFSS advertising claiming that there wold be severe impacts on media revenue.

PromoVeritas Point of View

So, is Unilever’s bold approach one that we applaud or discourage? Whilst current HFSS rules may need tightening up, they do not exist in a vacuum. The UK advertising industry prides itself on how well it can self-regulate whilst maintaining some of the most creative campaigns in the world. Since 2017 advertisers have followed CAP’s HFSS rules – the only HFSS ruling has been the Ben & Jerry’s one – but have the government delivered on their own commitment to halve obesity rates by 2030?

Reducing sugar and calorie content, ending price promotions on unhealthy foods and supporting schools and local authorities to create healthier food environments and exercise programmes are just another part of the jigsaw. Marketers are already onboard and keen to ensure that their advertising and promotional campaigns do not encourage excessive consumption of unhealthy foods. We regularly check the campaigns of brands we work with to ensure they are in line with HFSS rules and like Unilever, behaving responsibly, allowing parents to make the choices, and not the children.

PromoVeritas have helped some of the world’s favourite brands run responsible and compliant promotions, including ones for products aimed at children. To find out more about how we can help you plan your next promotion, or to attend our Marketing to Children Breakfast Briefing on Wednesday 1st April  contact or register here.

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