Watchdogs: Marketers Are Sidestepping U.K. Ban on Junk-Food Ads

Groups Chastise Kellogg, Others for Using Web to Push Sugar to Kids and Continuing to Use Cartoons

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LONDON ( -- U.K. regulators have clamped down on marketing junk food to children, but critics are howling that marketers are already finding ways around new government rules introduced July 1.
This Tiger is still roaring: Marketers' own cartoons are allowed in U.K. TV ads.
This Tiger is still roaring: Marketers' own cartoons are allowed in U.K. TV ads.

In one high-profile incident, celebrity magazine OK featured pictures of glamour model and TV star Katie Price feeding her new daughter, Princess, with a clearly-branded bottle of SMA baby milk. Infant-formula ads are banned in the U.K., but the photos are serendipitously positioned next to a (legal) ad for SMA milk for older babies.

SMA, Ms. Price and OK magazine all claim coincidence. Apparently Ms. Price was not paid to endorse the brand and the ad was bought months ago as part of a long-term media plan, but the public outcry and media coverage show just how sensitive the issue remains.

Also sensitive is the issue that the new rules cover mainstream media only, and watchdogs charge that leaves other areas of marketing ripe for exploitation by marketers hungry to reach young audiences.

The powerful Consumers' Association has lashed out at advertisers for continuing to use cartoon characters to promote junk food. Since July 1, licensed cartoon characters have been banned from TV ads, although manufacturers' own creations, such as Kellogg's Tony the Tiger, are still allowed.

Marketers' widespread use of cartoon characters on packaging, while legal, is condemned by the Consumers' Association. While Disney and Warner Bros. no longer use their cartoon characters to promote unhealthful food, many marketers still overtly target children in the packaging of sweet or salty foods. Nesquik chocolate-flavor cereal ("Spiderman"), Butterkist honey-nut popcorn ("The Simpsons"), Kellogg's Frosties ("Shrek") and Bon Bon Buddies Bratz Fabulous Biscuits ("Bratz") all are being singled out for criticism.
Ian Twinn, ISBA's director-public affairs
Ian Twinn, ISBA's director-public affairs

Kellogg reacted to the outcry with a statement: "No further Kellogg's promotions will use licensed characters; the focus is now on entertainment, health or activity."

The Consumer Association's report was condemned as out-of-date by industry trade groups. Julian Hunt, the Food and Drink Federation's director-communications, said, "The report is bizarre given that the U.K. already has some of the strictest regulations in the world when it comes to advertising and promoting food and drink products to children, and the industry is fully complying with these rules."

No raisins?
Adding to the confusion is a U-turn by the government's Food Standards Agency, whose contentious definition of food that is high in fat, salt and sugar is the bedrock of the ban on advertising junk food to children. Milk was controversially banned, along with other childhood staples such as cheese and raisins, but following publicity about the absurdity of the rules, milk's fat content was recalculated, and now it can be advertised on TV before 7 p.m.

The FDF is working with the Department of Health's Advertising and Promotion Forum to look at issues surrounding the packaging of children's food. A Consumers' Association spokesman said, "We are calling for tighter restrictions across the board. The current rules are patchwork, leaving advertisers free to find unregulated areas and go for the path of least resistance, particularly the internet."

Although banners, pop-up ads, promotions and sponsored links are covered by the same rules as traditional media, viral ads and corporate websites are still unregulated. The Incorporated Society of British Advertisers has been concerned enough about coming under fire that it has issued guidelines for members about the online promotion of food to children.

Ian Twinn, ISBA's director-public affairs, said, "This new guidance reflects parental and consumer concerns, giving advertisers a chance to voluntarily extend self-regulation to the online space."
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