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Unfair ‘junk food’ label risks making dog’s dinner of industry

By Ben Bouckley , 13-Feb-2012
Last updated the 13-Feb-2012 at 14:01 GMT

Anyone who has spent any appreciable amount of time working in the food industry realises that the issue of ‘junk food’ marketing to children is a hydra that rears two heads for every one cut off.

It’s an emotive issue that gives headline writers a frisson of satisfaction, news served hot with a self-righteous splatter of indignation (like jam shot into a doughnut) especially when kids are at issue.

But at the same time us food hounds and hacks feel a bit weary, dusting off our e-quills to report on an issue that (albeit important) has been done to death, moribund like that pizza you forgot in the oven.

“A new report released by the Children’s Food Campaign (CFC) and the British Heart Foundation (BHF), reveals the manipulative tactics junk food manufacturers use to hook children while they play online and entice them to eat foods loaded with fat, salt and sugar.”

The CFC raised the rhetorical stakes in outlining its ‘super complaint’ – sent to the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) last week – against major beverage and food brands for ‘child marketing’.

And although the charity made valid points regarding the need to tighten up online advertising loopholes that allow brands (whatever their protestations) to reach children, I believe the CFC rather lost its balance in the scramble to fix bayonets and tilt at industry ‘evils’.

Big brand radio silence

Most beverage brands cited by the CFC whom we contacted last Thursday for comment sent sent back radio silence (54 food and beverage brands were mentioned in all), but one firm that did go on the record was Dairy Crest.

A spokesman for the UK-based dairy processor told BeverageDaily.com that its successful milkshake brand Frijj was clearly targeted at young adults aged 16-24 years old, and that the firm was disappointed it had been included in the CFC’s report index.

He added: “The term ‘junk food’ to describe Frijj demonstrates a misunderstanding of nutritional science and the FSA’s [UK Food Standards Agency’s] nutrient profiling (NP) model, from which this report is based. Significantly, the FSA never uses this term.”

A palpable hit, since the FSA itself stressed in 2007: “The use of the term ‘junk food’ by the media and others to describe the foods that the NP model classifies as HFSS demonstrates a misunderstanding of nutritional science and how the NP model works.”

We live in an advertising age, where if firms don’t move forward – also within the online marketing realm – then they fossilise, while rivals thrive. Personally speaking, I also think Dairy Crest has a fair point regarding its target demographic, and has a right to exploit the online space accordingly.

I agree with the CFC that childhood obesity is a very real threat in developed nations. But why tar an entire industry with the ‘junk food’ brush? Moreover, no data on individual website complaints was released by the CFC: so how were industry players meant to respond – without risking being seen as evasive – when we contacted them for comment?

Broader internet issue

The CFC made the point that access to many brand websites was uncontrolled (no age checks, connections with Facebook, etc.) but so is access to more harmful web-based content, which opens up a wider debate on problems regarding, for instance, cyber-bullying and access to pornography.

Results of a survey of 1,800 UK adults released last week by pressure group Parent Port revealed that 25% allowed their children to play over-age games, and 40% let them watch over-age films.

Perhaps the adults in question were chowing-down on the couch with a Frijj and a packet of Wotsits. But that’s not all the fault of food firms, rather it points to wider issue surrounding society and parenthood. And we can’t overlook what are undoubtedly some positive effects of television and internet access.

In many cases food and beverage firms need to sharpen-up their act online, but they don’t deserve unfair stigmatization from the CFC, both as regards the ‘junk food’ tag, and the ‘one-size-fits-all’ super complaint launched last week, although the tactics behind that were clear.

Fuzzy/fizzy logic

Speaking to this publication last week, CFC spokesman Malcolm Clark said: “Studies have shown that kids up to the age of 12, possibly more, are less able to tell the difference between information and advertising.”

Where to draw the line? Returning to the Frijj/Wotsits example, even adults are sucked in by the subconscious allure of advertising, or at least convince themselves after the event that a given purchase was ‘rational’, inventing valid reasons for it.

Perhaps we adults also need protection, bombarded as we are by a 24/7 advertising blitz? Personally I don’t think so. Businesses make money by advertising their wares and encouraging consumption – it makes the world at least as happy as it is sad.

A classic dilemma for the Marxist who believes that the fruits of production should be distributed according to ‘need’ is how we define that term? And who is the Marxist to tell me I don’t ‘need’ this fizzy drink? Out of such fuzzy logic a fizzy and general drinks industry was born.

In sum, with food and beverage business success key to economic recovery, it’s important not to smother it in its cradle. It’s also vital that those worried by child marketing weigh their words carefully, however strong an argument there is for the ASA to beef-up its s.15 online marketing clause, which the CFC claims the 54 firms in question breached:

‘Marketing communications must not condone or encourage poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children.'

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