Ban on junk food gimmicks sought

Last updated 05:00 10/02/2014

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Junk food advertising targeting children should be banned as part of the fight against childhood obesity, scientists say.

A new Otago University study reveals how advertisers use free toys, gifts, discounts, competitions, promotional characters and celebrity endorsements to sell junk food to kids.

Dr Gabrielle Jenkin, lead researcher at the university's health promotion and policy research unit, said free toys with McDonald's Happy Meals, slogans such as Coke's "open happiness," and the use of characters such as Spiderman or SpongeBob Squarepants were good examples of how junk food was promoted.

"Such marketing has been proven to increase children's requests for the advertised foods, their food preferences and ultimately their diets," he said.

"For example, free toys, discounts and competitions promote brand loyalty and repeat purchases."

Childhood obesity rates have risen from about 8 per cent in 2007 to 11 per cent in 2013. . This had corresponded with a rise of Type 2 diabetes in children, which was once known only as adult-onset diabetes.

"Any kind of persuasive marketing makes children want stuff they don't need - we live in a consumer society and that's a downfall for all of us," she said.

Jenkin and her colleagues are calling for an outright ban on junk food advertising to children under 1, as has been done in Norway.

The Advertising Standards Authority's code for advertising food to children already restricts television ads promoting unhealthy food during children's programmes.

But in the absence of an outright ban, Jenkin said new rules were needed to control the use of "persuasive" advertising techniques.

Such restrictions existed in the United Kingdom, Australia and Ireland.

But Food and Grocery Council chief executive Katherine Rich, who represents members including Mars and Nestle, said the calls to ban the advertising were emotive.

There were already strict rules governing what food ads could be aired during children's television programmes, she said.

"The idea of banning free toys and characters sometimes makes me think these people have forgotten the joys of childhood."

She said past campaigns like the Milky Bar Kid and Cookie Bear had given a generation of kids fond childhood memories.

In New Zealand, Mars, Coca-Cola and Nestle all had policies of not targeting food ads at children.

Ultimately, controlling what children ate was a parental responsibility, she said.

"Children don't stroll in to McDonald's on their own."

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- The Dominion Post


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