The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is reviewing online food and drink marketing, especially to children, amid concerns about the rising incidence of obesity among young people.
The ASA told FoodManufacture.co.uk the move had not been directly prompted by the Department of Health (DH) or healthy eating groups.
“We are not looking at this because of the obesity crisis,” said an ASA spokesman. "We are looking at it to make sure we continue to regulate effectively.”
However, he added the backdrop of the healthy eating debate made continual scrutiny of the rules surrounding childrens’ food marketing important. "We are acutely aware of the wider public health debates about obesity in the UK.”
And he said the ASA was in constant dialogue with parties such as the DH, the British Heart Foundation and the Children’s Food Campaign.
‘Changes in media consumption’
The ASA was conducting the work on its own initiative, he said. “It is prompted by changes in media consumption. We are getting complaints about [mobile phone] apps and websites.” The number of complaints was not alarming, but it had highlighted the need to brush up on this area, he said.
Commenting on what the research and compliance work would entail, the ASA said it would build on efforts already undertaken over the past six months to assess complaints statistics and decisions.
“Overall, we consider that food and soft drink advertising is under control and that the rules are working effectively,” it said in an announcement today.
“However, in light of changes to our remit online and advances in digital media, we are taking steps to check our position and make sure we continue to regulate appropriately.”
Impact of digital and online marketing
The organisation has commissioned Dr Barbie Clarke and Family Kids and Youth to carry out a literature review of the impact of digital and online marketing of food and drink to children.
The work will explore the extent of the available evidence and assess what conclusions can reasonably be drawn from it.
The ASA said it aimed to undertake a survey of food ads, with a focus online, to assess whether there were any problem areas and to take action to bring advertising that breaks the rules into line.
And it has published an updated Help note on food and soft drink product advertisements and children to help advertisers stick to the rules, particularly in online and digital ads.
‘Excessive consumption, unhealthy lifestyles’
“The food advertising rules are designed to make sure that food and drink is promoted responsibly and ads don’t encourage poor nutritional habits, such as excessive consumption or unhealthy lifestyles,” said the ASA.
“Although the number of complaints the ASA receives from members of the public about food ads is low, the impact of food advertising is part of a wider public health debate about current levels of obesity."
In 2012, the World Health Organisation estimated nearly one in three EU children aged between six and nine were overweight or obese, compared to one in four in 2008.
The ASA expected to report on Dr Clarke’s findings by late summer and its compliance work by the end of this year.