Kids: Food for thought

The number of children in the UK who are clinically obese is increasing, as is the incidence of diseases caused by poor diets. In these circumstances, is it acceptable to advertise snack foods and those high in fat, salt and sugar to children?


Those who question whether it is right to advertise snack food to children inevitably come from a point of view, explicit or not, that it is somehow wrong. We believe that it is right - as long as it is done responsibly.

Advertising is consumer information. It is a facet of brand competition and consumer protection and is a recognised and welcome part of modern life. It is unrealistic to attempt to cocoon children from it artificially.

Indeed, learning to interpret and understand advertising is an important part of growing up in the world we live in. That said, we do firmly believe that advertising any product to children carries with it the special responsibility to respect their developing levels of understanding.

This is reflected in the industry's codes, administered by the Advertising Standards Authority, which contain explicit provisions for advertising to children. The area is not the free-for-all certain pressure groups would have the public believe. Advertising to children in ways that adhere to both the spirit and the letter of the codes, and which respect their ability to understand ads' commercial context, is not wrong.

Others argue that advertising snack food is wrong in the context of rising levels of obesity. Again, we disagree.

We all recognise obesity is a significant issue. However, advertising is not a major influence. Even the pressure groups' favourite study, the Strathclyde Review, published by the Food Standards Agency in 2003, actually found little evidence of advertising influencing diet. Ofcom's research review concluded advertising did have a small effect, but other factors were much more significant and additional advertising constraints should be proportionate.

We believe all food can contribute to a healthy and balanced diet. Attempts to categorise foods over-simplistically into "good" and "bad" are subjective, scientifically flawed and practically open to ridicule.

Recognising their corporate social responsibility, and as one part of the food and drink industry's seven-point plan, advertisers have proposed detailed tightening of the broadcast codes and to carry these proposals into the non-broadcast code of advertising, direct marketing and sales promotion. Additional voluntary restraints have also been proposed and are being increasingly practised.

Stopping advertising snack food would, we believe, have no impact on levels of obesity or public health, but would sacrifice an important principle, disadvantage consumers via lower levels of brand competition and innovation, and have other adverse consequences.

Advertising snack food to children is legitimate. However, as with all advertising to children, it carries special responsibilities. It is "right" to advertise to children responsibly.


The advertising of snack foods to children in itself is not wrong. But the advertising of snack and other foods high in fat, sugar and salt to children is, and must be stopped.

Obesity rates are escalating: 14.5 per cent of under-11s and 21.5 per cent of 12- to 16-year-olds in England are obese. We are also seeing the broader health consequences. Rates of type-two diabetes are rising dramatically in children. Around one-third of the cases of cancer and heart disease are linked to poor diet - and continue to be the major killers.

A range of concerted actions are needed on many levels that help people to make healthier choices and be more active. One of these is to stop marketing unhealthy foods to children.

Many children eat too much fat, sugar and salt and not enough fruit and vegetables. This has been highlighted from our own research, and is clear from the Government's National Diet and Nutrition Survey.

It is beyond dispute that food advertising and promotion influences children's food preferences and choices and the advertised diet contradicts the recommended one. The Hastings review for the Food Standards Agency confirmed this, has been held up as rigorous and has been reinforced by a recent US Institute of Medicine report.

This combination of factors makes a clear case for action to restrict the advertising of unhealthy food to children and the FSA has developed a robust model for identifying which foods these are. Foods high in fat, sugar and salt should not be advertised during the times that children are most likely to watch TV. But that on its own is not enough - all forms of marketing have to be tackled. Our recent report, Child Catchers, sets out the wide range of underhand and integrated tactics that can now be used to target children: everything from text messaging and packaging promotions to viral marketing.

Another compelling reason to stop marketing unhealthy food to children is because many parents have had enough. While parents also have a responsibility, marketing tricks used to promote unhealthy foods make it much harder to say no. Our surveys and focus groups have shown this and now people are voicing their frustration about irresponsible practices on our website (

The industry has an opportunity to take voluntary action through the tightening of self-regulatory codes. But there is a continuing reluctance to be responsible and accept that the marketing of unhealthy foods to children is contributing to poor diets and poor health. If a voluntary approach does not work, the Government must stick to its commitment to legislate.