Nestlé has leapt to the defence of its Nesquik milk-based drinks brand, after the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC) lodged a ‘super complaint’ with the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), complaining that well-known beverage and food brands were targeting children with 'cynical junk food marketing' practices online.
A list sent to this publication details 54 websites that the CFC has taken issue with, which includes big brands such as Nesquik (Nestlé) Vimto (Nicholls) Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Dairy Crest-owned brand Frijj.
Major food brands on the list include Cadbury, Mars, Sugar Puffs, Pringles, Penguin and Maltesers; all the brands and websites cited featured in the CFC’s 2011 report (with the British Heart Foundation), The 21st Century Gingerbread House.
“Offending” company websites all promote products ‘high in sugars or fat or salt’, according to the CFC, and encourages poor nutritional habits via a positive presentation of junk foods that influences children’s food choices and preferences.
A Nestlé spokesman told BeverageDaily.com this morning that the firm had strict policies regarding marketing and advertising to children across all media.
He said: “We do not advertise or market any products directly to children under six. We would only market products to under-12s that meet a strict nutritional profile that helps children achieve a healthy balanced diet and have limits for sugar, salt and fat content.”
Dairy Crest disappointment at Frijj inclusion
Moreover, the spokesman said the Nesquik site gave parents product and nutritional information and recipes, while it’s ‘Imagination Station’ on Facebook was “clearly intended for parents” looking for activities and playtime ideas to enjoy with children, and competitions were also aimed at parents.
A Coca-Cola GB spokeswoman said the firm was aware of the CFC’s complaint, but since that body had not shared further details it would await further information from the ASA. “We are committed to responsible marketing, and do not target any of our marketing to under 12s,” she said.
A Dairy Crest spokesman said: "Although we support campaigns that encourage children to have a healthy, balanced diet and plenty of exercise, we are disappointed that Frijj is included in the index of this report as its digital marketing clearly focuses on its main consumer group - young adults aged between 16 and 24.
"Frijj is made with fresh milk (a blend of 76% skimmed milk and 18% whole milk) it is rich in calcium, contains less than 1% fat and has no artificial colours or flavourings.
"The term ‘junk food’ to describe FRijj demonstrates a misunderstanding of nutritional science and the FSA's nutrient profiling model, from which this report is based. Significantly the FSA never uses this term."
The CFC is complaining about the sites under the terms of s.15 of the ASA Committee of Advertising Practice Code (CAP), where it claims they breach this clause: ‘Marketing communications must not condone or encourage poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children’.
CFC spokesman Malcolm Clark told BeverageDaily.com that his organisation felt impelled to make a super complaint, after UK minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, ED Vaizey, encouraged the body to file a complaint, if it felt ASA rules had been broken.
Clark said Vaizey believed that industry self-regulation was enough, and that the CFC planned to put this to the test, where the super complaint compiled numerous specific complaints on the issue.
He said: “What we’re saying is ‘let’s just see how strict the rules are. There are 54 complaints, and we’re interested to see how the ASA looks at them. Ed Vaizey says the rules are strict and he has faith in them, but we want to test this out.
Clark agreed that s.15 was open to interpretation as to whether firms were breaking ASA rules: “It doesn’t specify what ‘condone’ or ‘encourage’ mean, and we’d like to see a strict definition of these words.”
Consistency across media, and applying tougher television (OFCOM) standards to the internet and all other channels would help children, parents and create a level playing field for food and beverage companies that did implement good online practice, he said.
We asked Clark whether the issue was really that serious, given that companies had always advertised to sell products, and children and teenagers were themselves keen consumers?
“Children are keen consumers, but they’re made keen consumers by the environment around them, the pressures of marketing. Studies have shown that kids up to the age of 12, possibly more, are less able to tell the difference between information and advertising,” he said.
“There is a childhood obesity epidemic, and we want to make things easier for both children and parents to make the right dietary choices – that’s not helped by an online environment where foods high in salt, fat and sugar are constantly promoted to them.”
Challenged as to whether children visited the sites in question in great numbers, given the popularity of Facebook, television and other entertainment media, Clark said: “We don’t have stats on individual site usage.
“But last year we found that 90% of children live in a house with internet access, and over 40% of 12-15 have smartphones. Clever cross-promotions also link company sites to Facebook pages, where there are also embedded games.”
What the CFC wanted was consistency, Clark said, where it supported beefing-up the marketing restrictions within the ASA code accordingly. “These are products that can’t be advertised on TV to children, are more appealing to children. Some sites have good practice, proper checks to ensure you are 16-17 years-old, but not enough sites do this, and firms that do are at a competitive disadvantage.”
Of the other drinks brands websites censured by the CFC, Vimto (Nichols plc) and Britvic (Robinsons Fruit Squash) separately declined to comment on the CFC complaint, while GlaxoSmithKline (Lucozade, Ribena) and PepsiCo had not responded to requests for comment at the time of writing.