Close-Up: Live issue - Are teens new target of junk-food ads?

Which? accuses food giants of covert tactics to target young teenagers, Anne Cassidy reports.

Custard pies at the ready as the battle of the bulge continues to rage on between advertisers and consumer bodies - and who should be caught in the middle this week? Young teenagers.

The latest bun fight has been stoked up by a report on junk-food ads from the consumer body Which? that has castigated food giants, including Nestle and Coca-Cola, for targeting junk-food ads at the under-16s (or young teens) by using unregulated mobile phone marketing and social networking websites.

The report, entitled Food Fables - the Second Sitting, looks at the marketing activity of 12 food and drink brands and is a follow-up to a similar report in 2006. Although Which? praises Weetabix and KFC for being more responsible and for "notable improvements" in tactics when advertising to children, it believes that most food companies fall short when aiming at teens.

The charity argues that as well as continuing to use the old reliable methods of film tie-ins, cartoon characters and celebrity endorsements, companies have circumnavigated regulators by advertising on sites such as Bebo and YouTube.

Companies under fire from Which? include Kellogg for using a text campaign for a free ringtone for its cereals; Coca-Cola for introducing a Fanta-branded mobile phone game; Cadbury for linking to child-aimed games, and PepsiCo for its continued use of celebrities.

McDonald's and Burger King were also criticised for tie-ins involving free toys and giveaways linked to children's films.

However, Jill McDonald, the chief marketing officer at McDonald's, believes that the report fails to recognise the work already done by companies such as McDonald's.

She points out that 75 per cent of its Happy Meals are not high in fat salt or sugar, and so advertising them in any form does not contravene any guidelines.

Which? also wants an extension of TV advertising restrictions introduced by Ofcom that ban junk-food advertising in or around programmes that have an "above average appeal to under-16s", such as Coronation Street.

Needless to say, Which?'s criticisms have elicited a disgruntled response from business and adverting circles. The Advertising Association says that calls for advertising bans lack any hard evidence and that the impact of advertising on children's food choices is minimal.

According to the AA, rather than ad bans, self-regulation through the Advertising Standards Association is the most workable method of regulating advertising.

ISBA counters that the Which? report is "seriously misleading". Ian Twinn, the director of public affairs, believes Which? misses the point and misrepresents advertisers: "Advertisers have some of the most restrictive food ad rules in the world for TV, for non-broadcast and, yes, also for the digital spaces."

He also argues that some of the marketing practices in question are primarily aimed at over-16s and that in order to see the ads any children under-16 would have to lie about their age.

ISBA, however, sees something must be done to regulate the digital arena. While the ASA's Committee of Advertising Practice code applies across the internet, companies' own sites escape restrictions.

"Our next step is to see how we future proof our rules for websites, tackling a thorny issue of editorial freedom and fair comment whilst giving clear rules."

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ADVERTISERS' BODY - Ian Twinn, director of public affairs, ISBA

"The companies attacked by Which? for campaigns targeting the under-16s are pilloried because children access media with age bars, not because they targeted children.

"Which? continues to miss the point about obesity and food sales.

"They think that by banning advertising and marketing we will transform into sylph-like figures. The truth is Which? needs to join business and government in committing to longer-term behavioural change campaigns to make a real difference, helping us all get our diet and lifestyles in balance."

CLIENT - Jill McDonald, chief marketing officer, McDonald's

"McDonald's abides by the spirit and the letter of the advertising codes. We're allowed to advertise under the new guidelines because 75 per cent of our Happy Meals are not high in fat, salt or sugar, according to the Food Standards Association's nutrient profiling model. I know this fact can still surprise people.

"We use our relationships with popular films such as Kung Fu Panda to help make items such as our fruit bags and carrot sticks more appealing to children - our Bee Movie-branded fruit bags resulted in a 11 per cent increase in fruit bags sold during the promotional period. Our customers endorse this approach."

TRADE FEDERATION - Baroness Peta Buscombe, chief executive, Advertising Association

"Of course we all oppose 'irresponsible marketing'. But the reality is that the advertising industry takes a very responsible approach to food advertising to al- ages.

"There has been a significant change in the nature and balance of food advertising to youngsters and Ofcom, the independent regulator, has confirmed the positive work undertaken by the industry.

"A report by the Advertising Association in September last year showed that since 2003, TV advertising expenditure on 'better for you' products, such as fruit juice, water and fresh fruit and vegetables, increased by 61 per cent, and in other media by more than 130 per cent."

WATCHDOG - Sue Davies, chief policy adviser, Which?

"Yes - many are. Several companies have policies not to market to under-12s but see teens as fair game, whether through sponsorship, websites or text competitions.

"Some still advertise less healthy foods when most children watch TV because of weaknesses in the Ofcom restrictions. But we also found companies who have committed not to advertise to under-12s still targeting their less healthy food marketing at younger children through cartoon characters, footballer endorsements and film tie-ins. We would like to see them using this creativity to promote healthier choices."