Which? first squared up to the practice of using visual characters, that may be attractive to children, in food marketing in August 2007. At this time it sent letter to 11 UK companies that license cartoon characters and five food companies that use their own cartoon characters on foods.
In the new report, called The cartoon villains are still getting away with it, it notes that there are controls in place by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) and the Broadcasting Committee on Advertising Practice (BCAP) that control the use of third party, licensed cartoon characters, such as Shrek, to market foods high in fat, sugar and salt to younger children. But it calls these codes weak, and says the industry has a responsibility to police itself and stop using characters dreamed up by its marketers on unhealthy foods.
“If the industry fails to act, the government must step in,” said Which? food campaigner Clare Corbett.
The organization is already calling on the government to take action as well, by giving clearer direction on the need to limit irresponsible marketing of less healthy foods; it also wants the CAP and BCAP to strengthen their codes to cover owned characters, be based on the Food Standards Agency’s nutrient profiling model, and apply to children up to the age of 16.
Ban the bears?
The new report, which points the finger at long-time popular characters like Tony the Tiger and Pom Bear, has met with “bafflement” from the food industry.
“We are baffled as to why Which? wants to take all the fun out of food by banning popular brand characters, many of whom have been adding colour to supermarket shelves for more than 80 years,” said Julian Hunt, director of communications of the Food and Drink Federation, the trade body for the UK food manufacturing industry.
But Corbett said this is not the intention: “Cartoons are great fun for kids. We definitely don’t want to see the end of popular characters like Tony the Tiger and the Honey Monster, but we do want to see them promoting healthier products.”
Which? says that of the 19 characters whose food appearances it reviewed, not one was being used to promote only healthier products, as defined by the Food Standards Agency’s (FSA) nutrient profiling model.
Some graced packs of healthier products, such as the Honey Monster on Honey Meltz, but were also used on unhealthy products (Sugar Puffs and Honey Waffles, in the case of the Honey Monster).
However Hunt said that many of the products mentioned in the Which? report have actually changed their recipes in recent years to be healthier – “something for which they never get any credit”.
The cartoon baddie identity parade
Which? has singled out a number of company-owned characters that it claims are not as cute and innocent as they seem.
The most offensive was said to be Moo, Kraft’s Dairylea cow. She appeared on some 17 products, and although cheese products can be a rich source of calcium, they can also be high in saturated fat and salt.
For example, Dairylea Lunchables Chicken ‘n’ Cheese Wraps are seen to contain 1.8g of salt, one third of the recommended daily maximum for a child aged seven to 10.
The crisps graced by Intersnacks Pom Bear were classed as high in saturated fat, based on the FSA’s nutrient profiling model.
Kellogg’s lovable rogue Tony the Tiger puts in an appearance on Frosties, which are “over a third sugar” (as well as in the reduced sugar version and the cereal and milk bars). The same “over a third sugar” claim was made of Kellogg’s Captain Rik, whose presides over Ricicles.
Captain Crunch meanwhile, a mascot of Red Mill Snack Foods, calls the shots of Transform-A-Snack crisps, deemed high in fat and salt.
Whose fault are fat kids?
Which? says that robust food promotion restrictions are needed because of the high levels of obesity amongst children in the UK.
Thirty-one per cent of boys and 29 per cent of girls are obese or overweight, according to the health Survey for England 2006 – and if current rates continue those percentages will rocket to 55 and 77 per cent respectively by 2050.
However it is generally accepted that food is not the only issue to be addressed; others include education, and encouraging physical activity.
Indeed in January the UK launched a major £372m programme to combat obesity, which is seeking to address these measures as well as partnering with the food industry to develop and market healthier food.