A ban on manipulative junk food advertising to children is urgently needed to help fight increasing rates of childhood obesity, say University of Otago Wellington researchers.
Free toys, gifts, discounts and competitions, promotional characters and celebrities, and appeals to taste and fun, are just some of the techniques used by marketers to promote junk food to kids, according to a recent systematic literature review.
The university’s Department of Public Health has for some time been on a drive to research the causes of obesity in a country where the obesity rate among children aged between five and 11 jumped from 8% to 11% in just six years. At least 20% of New Zealand's children are considered overweight.
From Happy Meals to ‘open happiness’
Lead researcher Gabrielle Jenkin says most children and parents will be familiar with the offer of free toys at McDonalds, slogans such as “open happiness” with Coke, and the use of licensed characters such as Spiderman or Spongebob Squarepants to promote junk food to children.
Persuasive food marketing is manipulative, especially for children, Jenkin said, adding: “Such marketing has been proven to increase children’s requests for the advertised foods, their food preferences and ultimately their diets. For example, free toys, discounts and competitions promote brand loyalty and repeat purchases.”
Meanwhile, Jenkin’s colleague at UOW’s Department of Public Health, Louise Signal, has been researching the extent of junk food advertising on kids by equipping 200 schoolchildren with wearable cameras and recording the instances they come in contact with advertising from billboards, shops and the back of buses.
"Children tell us that they do see a lot of advertising, but we've never quantified it across the entire range of media,” said Signal.
"As a parent myself, I'm very interested because parents aren't with their older children all of the time, they don't necessarily know where they go, and a lot of it slides under the radar anyway.”
Bringing legislation in line with other countries
Jenkin and her review team are now calling for an outright ban on junk food advertising to children under 16, as has been done in Norway.
In the absence of a ban, new rules would need to be added to the advertising codes around the use of persuasive techniques, as has been done in the UK, Australian and Ireland, they say.
The study claims to be the first of its kind to focus on common techniques used to promote food to children on television. The research has been published in the latest edition of the international journal, Obesity Reviews.