Technical Paper 1:
Obesity in Australia: a need for urgent action
As discussed in the Technical Report, the most authoritative and comprehensive reviews of studies on the nature and extent of food marketing to children have been conducted in the United Kingdom, initially in 2003, updated in 2006 and in 2008 (unpublished). This work reviewed studies on the extent and nature of food marketing to children from over 25 countries. These reviews and updates indicate that children are exposed to high levels of food advertising and marketing, and that the advertised diet is dramatically different from recommended diets, as it predominantly promotes energy-dense nutrient-poor (EDNP) foods. These findings are consistent with evidence from the work conducted by the Institute of Medicine in the United States, as covered in the Technical Report.
There is a substantial and accumulating body of Australian research on food marketing patterns, including studies related to television, magazines, the internet, outdoor settings and point-of-sale.[57-66] This research indicates that food marketing is pervasive, and that children are exposed to high levels in each of these media throughout daily life. The research shows consistently that the content of food marketing directed at children is predominantly for unhealthy foods.
Restrictions on unhealthy food advertising targeted at children and others are proposed as part of a comprehensive approach and only one of a large range of measures required to address obesity. While current evidence is not sufficient to assess the impact of comprehensive advertising restrictions on obesity prevalence in children, especially in conjunction with public education (as this has not occurred in any jurisdiction), even a small association between television advertising and adiposity means limiting advertising would have significant impact across the entire population of children and young people. Small influences can be significant when they affect a large population, are ongoing and cumulative. It is important to note that food marketing has as much impact on food consumption as any other single factor, and is amenable to change.[67, 68]
Persuasive marketing techniques are frequently used to advertise non-core foods to children, as well as to promote children’s brand recognition and preference for advertised products. Recent Australian research examined children’s exposure to the use of persuasive marketing within television food advertisements.
Advertisements broadcast on all three commercial Australian television channels were recorded for an equivalent one-week period in May 2006 and 2007 (714 hours). Food advertisements were analysed for their use of persuasive marketing, including premium offers, such as competitions, and the use of promotional characters, including celebrities and cartoon characters. Advertised foods were categorised as core, non-core or miscellaneous foods. Commercial data were purchased to determine children’s peak viewing times and popular programs. A total of 20,201 advertisements were recorded, 25.5% of which were for food.
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The study found that significantly more food advertisements broadcast during children’s peak viewing times contained promotional characters and premium offers, compared with food advertisements during non-peak times. During programs most popular with children, there were 3.3 non-core food advertisements per hour containing premium offers, compared with 0.2 per hour during programs most popular with adults. The majority of advertisements containing persuasive marketing during all viewing periods were for non-core foods.
Future debate relating to television advertising regulations must consider the need to restrict the use of persuasive marketing techniques to children, including premium offers such as competitions, and the use of promotional characters such as celebrities and cartoon characters.
Food marketing is linked to childhood obesity through its influence on children’s food preferences, purchase requests and food consumption. A study by Kelly, Cretikos, Rogers and King aimed to describe the volume and nature of outdoor food advertisements and factors associated with outdoor food advertising in the area surrounding Australian primary schools. Forty NSW primary schools in Sydney and Wollongong were selected using random sampling within population density and socioeconomic strata. The area within a 500-metre radius of each school was scanned and advertisements coded according to pre-defined criteria, including food or non-food product advertisement, distance from the school, size and location. Food advertisements were further categorised as core foods, non-core foods and miscellaneous drinks (tea and coffee). The number of advertisements identified was 9151, of which one-quarter (25% or 2286) were for food.
There were 1834 non-core food advertisements: this accounted for 80% of food advertisements. Soft drinks and alcoholic beverages were the food products most commonly advertised around primary schools (24% and 22% of food advertisements, respectively). Non-core food products were twice as likely to be advertised close to a primary school (95 non-core food advertisements per square kilometre within 250 metres compared to 46 advertisements per square kilometre within 250–500 metres). The authors concluded that the density of non-core food advertisements within 500 metres of primary schools, and the potential for repeated exposure of children to soft drink and alcoholic beverage advertisements in particular, highlights the need for outdoor food marketing policy intervention. The authors argued that outdoor advertising is an important food marketing tool that should be considered in future debates on the regulation of food marketing to children.
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A 2009 review of existing knowledge regarding the impact of marketing addressed the value of various legal, legislative, regulatory and industry-based approaches to change. While reducing food marketing to children has been proposed as one means for addressing the global crisis of childhood obesity, there are significant barriers (social, legal, financial and public perception) associated with this. According to the authors, scientific literature documents that food marketing to children is:
(b) Expanding in number of venues (product placements, video games, the internet, mobile telephones)
(c) Composed almost entirely of messages for nutrient-poor, calorie-dense foods
(d) Having harmful effects
(e) Increasingly global and therefore difficult to regulate by individual countries
The food industry, governmental bodies and advocacy groups have proposed a variety of plans for altering the marketing landscape.
A recent publication in the European Journal of Public Health reported on a mathematical simulation model that estimated the potential effects of reducing the exposure of 6–12-year-old US children to television food advertising on the prevalence of overweight and obesity.
The study concluded that from one in seven up to one in three obese children in the United States might not have been obese in the absence of advertising for unhealthy food on television: reducing the exposure to zero would lower the prevalence of obesity from 17.8% to 15.2% for boys and from 15.9% to 13.5% for girls. This study provides support for limiting the exposure of children to marketing of energy-dense food as a part of a comprehensive approach to improving children’s diets.
13For example, see www.telegraph.co.uk/health/healthnews/3812954/Call-for-full-ban-on-junk-food-adverts-for-children-after-Ofcom-says-part-ban-is-working.html
14Companies sign up to the initiative as a minimum commitment and must publish individual Company Action Plans outlining how they will meet the initiative’s core principles. See AFGC website for Company Action Plans at www.afgc.org.au/index.cfm?id=771 (Accessed 4 June 200).
15For example, the Coca-Cola, Pepsico, Nestlé and Cereal Partners Worldwide commitments each define ‘targeting children under 12 years’ on television as an ACMA classified C or P program, or where predominantly or >50% of the audience is under 12 years. OzTAM ratings data for January–June 2006 indicate no time slots across weekdays or across weekends when children 0–14 years comprise the majority of the overall viewing audience across commercial channels. While specific programs (on particular channels and particular days) may have predominantly children in their audience, this is a very limited occurrence. Reference 10.