It is a fact that advertising influences the food that children choose to eat. With one third of children overweight or obese by their eleventh birthday, we need to protect them from relentless junk food marketing in all walks of life. This is why for the last ten years we have had rules banning adverts for junk food and drinks high in fat, sugar and salt from being broadcast around children's TV programmes.
But as any parent knows, long gone are the days when children's 'screen-time' was based exclusively on being huddled round the TV watching the latest TV shows in real time. Thanks to our multi-media world, children are more likely to be watching their favourite shows on an iPad, or viewing popular YouTube vloggers showing them 'how to' do everything from the latest hairstyle to how to survive in Minecraft.
As media habits evolve, marketers have developed new and more sophisticated ways to engage our children with their latest offering. But unfortunately, regulation hasn't kept up at the same pace. So earlier this month, the Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP) finally announced important new rules to protect children from junk food marketing to in the non-broadcast environment - i.e. online, social media, newspapers, magazines and cinema.
This is an important and welcome first step that health campaigners have been calling for, for a number of years.
On the face of it, the new rules seem comprehensive, but there are still several big loopholes. The rules still allow junk food advertising during peak TV viewing time for family shows like Coronation Street and X-Factor. That means that millions of children could still be exposed to persuasive adverts for junk food and sugary drinks and products.
1. The restrictions will only apply when over 25% of the audience are children.
This means media which is universally popular with both adults and children would not meet the threshold. Imagine a YouTube video which may be watched by 20 million viewers. As long as 15 million of them are adults, five million children also watching could be seeing adverts for junk food. Or what about a billboard in a busy London train station? Considering up to 4.8 million passenger journeys are made per day, the rules would mean up to 1.2 million journeys could be made by children everyday exposing them to junk food advertising because the restrictions will not be applied.
Furthermore, this rule is meaningless to parents trying to protect their children from junk food marketing. How are they supposed to know the likely percentage of children in the audience?
2. Celebrities and popular film and TV characters can now be used to promote 'healthier food'.
This is a backward step. It would have been better to see CAP consider how advertising can be a force for good, and instead allow the use of popular characters on the healthiest types of real food - e.g. fruit and vegetables.
In one positive move, the rules state celebrities and licensed characters can't be used to promote food products that are the very worst offenders in terms of their fat, sugar and salt content (known as HFSS products). But they can now be used to promote any products that don't quite meet the criteria for HFSS, but still have a considerable high sugar and fat content.
3. The rules don't extend to packaged goods despite this being a powerful marketing technique to target children.
Many a visit to the supermarket is hampered by a child wanting to buy the sugary cereal featuring their favourite film character on the box. These rules don't cover use of popular film and TV characters or characters created by brands specifically to appeal to children on junk food products.
Need for improvement
So, while these new rules are an important step in the right direction, it's certainly not a case of 'job done'. We still have a long way to go to significantly reduce children's exposure to relentless junk food marketing. For TV, this means applying current restrictions to the programmes most watched by children in the early evening. For non-broadcast environments, we need stronger clearer restrictions that will make a real difference to what our kids are exposed to.
If we are going to tackle obesity and improve the future health of our children, we need to close these loopholes to ensure all children have the protection they deserve from junk food marketing and encourage them to make healthier choices by creating a less obesogenic environment.