Consumer group: Food ads still targeted at kids

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This article is part of our special report Food & Responsible Marketing.

Despite industry pledges, children are still being targeted in food adverts and such ads are moving from television to other media such as the Internet, says Ruth Veale of European consumers' organisation BEUC in an interview with EURACTIV. 

Ruth Veale is head of the food, health, environment and safety department at BEUC, the European consumers’ organisation.

She was speaking to EURACTIV's Outi Alapekkala. 

To read an article based on this interview, please click here

What are your current priorities on food and responsible marketing?

Health claims and food information and marketing to children are our top things in marketing of foods.

We really appreciate that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is applying ‘gold standards‘ when reviewing the claims dossiers and, so far, over 80% of all claims have received a negative opinion.

Against a background of a massive rejection of claims by EFSA, can we even talk about responsible advertising today?

Well, exactly. The work that EFSA has done has been fantastic and it is great that they have put out the opinions as soon as they could so that we are at least aware of those products that have received a negative opinion. We can, by looking at the opinion, identify what types of product have received a negative opinion – like Yakult recently.

But the issue now is to set up the positive list of claims by the Commission, which will not now be put in place until after June next year – some say not before December next year.

Does this mean that Yakult can still be advertised as usual until then?

Yes. And this is the issue for us – the fact that these products can still remain on the market with their claims until six months after the positive list has been set up, which means that consumers can potentially be mislead into buying these products for another 18 months.

The positive list was supposed to be set up by this year but then it was postponed so that all claims would go on a positive or negative list together. And this will be done by the end of next year.

The other issue is the nutrient profiles, which are the cornerstone of the health claims regulation.

While [German European People’s Party MEP] Renate Sommer (the European Parliament’s rapporteur on the dossier) has tried to get these deleted from the health claims regulation, for us they are of vital importance and are also related to responsible marketing.

Because for health claims it ensures that only products that meet a specific nutrition criteria can bear a claim. So obviously we do not want products high in fat, sugar or salt to bear a claim.  

But also, you need to know that industry has come out very strongly against these profiles – and some companies have said that profiles could lead to warnings on products or the product couldn’t be sold any more. This is complete misinformation and not acting responsibly. And Renate Sommer has really been trying to get nutrient profiles deleted from health claims regulation through the food information regulation.

But this is weird for us, because companies often use their own profiles to determine what foods they market to children. So if you look at the EU pledge – each company has its own nutritional criteria to determine what they do and what they don’t advertise to kids.

What is your assessment of the EU pledge?

For us there are various areas where it needs to go further. It is a step into the right direction, for sure. But there are lot of ‘buts’.

Among their specific commitments, companies have varying criteria regarding the age of children concerned and use different nutritional criteria to determine what they advertise. The development of nutritional criteria (as to what foods can/cannot be advertised to children) is not transparent – we don’t know how they came up with them. We would like to have scientific criteria be developed to determine what foods should and should not be advertised to children.

The second issue is that the pledge does not cover all forms of media. So, where you say that there is 99% compliance with advertising to children on TV, we have seen over a number of years anyway that companies are moving away from television advertising and they are going towards the Internet, games and video games. They really have great imaginations.

Are you saying that foods are being advertised in video games?

There are company-specific websites which are not covered under the pledge, as far as I’m aware. And they have games specifically targeting children and these are naturally branded. You can send these games and links to you friends.

So you need to go to a company website, but you also with some food products you more and more have on the pack a code saying ‘visit our website for free games’, for example. So this is advertised on the product – ‘go to our website to get games’. And this is not really covered by the companies’ EU pledge.

Also, the fact that cartoon figures on boxes of cereals, for example, and companies’ own cartoon characters – [some of which are] as well-known as Disney characters – are not covered by the pledge. So you could say that there are a number of loopholes in the pledge. While certain media are covered, industry is also getting more inventive in its way of marketing to children. 

Is responsible marketing only about children?

For us the main issue is children, but when it comes to health and nutrition claims, for example, the issue touches upon adults as well. This is why scientific evaluation of claims by the EFSA is necessary and nutrient profiles are necessary, because we don’t want a product high in salt, sugar or fat to bear a claim.

Our studies back in 2005 show that consumers look at the claim and base their purchase on a claim rather than the nutritional criteria, because these claims are often on branded products and people trust brands. So, when consumers could choose between a product with a claim and a product without one, they opted for the product with a claim. So this is why health claims regulation is so important for us. We have studied consumers’ confidence in claims and they read and trust them.

Is the trust brand-related?

The majority of consumers look at the claims and are more likely to buy a branded product with a claim than a branded product without a claim.

If people are confronted with a product on a shelf – most say they will go for the brand because they know about it and trust in it. And if the brand has a claim, it is easier for a consumer to trust a claim made by a multinational brand. So brands play an important role in the selection.

Isn’t it in the interest of a big brand to be a trusted brand? How valuable is trust in a brand or trust in a product?

I think they go hand in hand. 

While there was a lot of criticism from industry about EFSA’s workings and the claims, it is important to say that there are some companies who have invested a lot of money in making sure that their claims are scientifically substantiated which are supporting EFSA and are supporting the development of profiles – but how strict they want those profiles to be is another matter. So there are companies that are working with same mindset as us.

Is it possible to shelter children from advertising in today’s commercial world?

I think we need to stress that it is not only about advertising to children, as we have seen a shift by companies away from advertising to children to advertising to parents. ‘If you are a good parent you should be giving your child this,’ etc. 

There is one ad about a perfect mother having little chocolates for her children every day after school – and these are naturally ‘the perfect portion size for children’. In another, a happy family is having breakfast together – and they are clearly happy because they are all having chocolate cereals, high in sugar.

So, it is about shifting away from directly targeting children and putting pressure on parents – and this is another issue for us.

But we also need to be looking at TV programmes that children actually watch (they may not be qualified strictly as children’s programmes but are hugely popular among children).

And when we asked about this around companies, they said ‘well, parents are there to police their children’. But we think that parents already have enough to deal with.

So should we take all food advertising off TV?

The television is not as much of a problem as it was before, but this is where profiles come in. And I believe it is important to have strict profiles when it comes to marketing to children.

As I said, within the different pledges every company has their own criteria – whereas we’d need something strict: ‘this you can do, and this you cannot’.

But there is also the fact that we have given self-regulation a go. We are on this platform, trying to be constructive.

A lot more needs to be done – addressing the nutrition criteria, the age of children.

I need to be clear that what we are speaking of is the advertising of foods high in fat, salt and sugar to children.

But how can you protect children in a commercial world, where adults can be targeted with advertising and children will always be confronted with those ads as well?

This is of course an issue. But the other one is the specific targeting of children – and that has not stopped yet.

So before talking about children seeing ads targeted at adults, we need to go back and make sure that programmes or sites that are specifically intended for children don’t have these adverts: that would already reduce a lot what children are confronted with.  And then the next step would be to look at this other issue.

What does responsible marketing mean to you?

It is something that is not hidden or misleading, and does not put undue pressure on people to buy a product.

Industry finances programmes like Media Smart. What do you think about this?

It is a huge issue. Companies going to school and sponsoring books or playgrounds is very common in the UK, at least. Last year we had an example here in Belgium whereby you had McDonalds in schools sponsoring all sport equipment, and it was a huge deal at that time. But you have in the UK cases in which companies then require that their logo is on the balls or T-shirts, etc. as well.

I think that for us, we would prefer for any sort of campaign to be funded either by governments or the European Commission, for example.

Sometimes when it is funded by industry it is not very transparent and people will have a lot more trust if it is away from industry. Giving industry the opportunity to teach children about advertising is not very clear how it works. So we would prefer if it was done by an independent body.

The same standards should be applied across Europe on this and the Commission or governments could take the money from the industry and then allocate it, so that there would be a sort of in-between step.

What about greening consumer behaviour? Is there any role there for industry in education on this?

Our UK member did a study on green labels just a while ago and the major finding was that they would like the label to be endorsed by an independent body, so that there is clear scientific criteria behind these labels and that these are transparent, because here again you have so many green claims made by companies.

Current green claims are based on companies’ own assessment of a product compared to another company’s product in the same category. Do you think that there should be EU regulation on green claims?

It is a bit early to talk about an EU-wide scheme, but we do believe that there should be some sort of standardisation with these labels. There is currently a proliferation of labels, which merely confuses consumers. Perhaps more criteria should be put in the development of a single label, for example.

We have to make sure that the green labels mean something. Consumers will trust them more if they come from government or an independent body than from industry.

We are asking for more transparency from the industry when it comes to health claims, their own nutrient profiles or the use of nanotechnology in food, for example.

We have asked for this transparency regarding nanotech – are companies using it or not? – because with all the secrecy and a kind of a grey area on this, we don’t know what we should believe. How are we supposed to trust in the food industry when they are not being upfront?

Industry loves to talk about consumer education and empowerment. Why do think this is the case – is it just to avoid regulation?

Yes. It is about putting the onus back on the consumer so that it is up to the consumer to make the right decision.

Education is important. We would be the first ones to say that education is important, but you will also need your tools and the instruments in place to use your education. So if you don’t have a proper labelling scheme or if you are then going to be misled on what’s in the product: you can educate until the cows come home, but you need tools to be able to use what you have learned.

Could you elaborate on nanotech in foods ?

One of our members in the Netherlands sent us an article where silica was found on a nano scale in food products – a powder which prevents things from sticking together – and the Dutch authorities have confirmed that this nano-ingredient is being used in food products. But then again, when you ask the food industry, they say that no nano additions are being used in food.

It is extremely expensive for our members to test food products to see whether there are ingredients at nano scale.

And industry has said that the only area where nano is being used currently in food is in food packaging, and that there is no problem with them migrating into food – that’s another issue – but they are not willing to be transparent as to where they are looking to use nano.

A few years ago we could read in the newspapers that there will be nano-fat molecules, which means that there will be no fat in your ice cream or your mayonnaise. Then when people started questioning nano and saying well ‘would it be good for your health’ – it just all closed up and there is no more information.

Industry will say ‘consumers are sceptical now about using nano’ – well, one of the reasons is that industry is not listening to consumers.

Do you feel that the food industry is not being transparent about where they are using nanomaterials? Doesn’t it have any obligation to reveal products’ nano ingredients?

When EFSA put out a call for information on nano – the answer across the industry board was ‘we are not using nano, we are not looking at nano, we are not investing in nano’. So, who knows what’s out there and what we are consuming? And this is why we want legislation as soon as possible – be it through novel foods regulation or though food information – we want systematic labelling of nano-ingredients.

But then again, it comes to the food industry saying ‘our ingredients are supplied by someone else and they may not inform us that there is nano’. But the responsibility lies with companies to find out this information.

Do you have any special message on responsible marketing?

On the companies’ EU pledge and codes of conduct, we believe that they are a step in the right direction but there are a number of gaps and loopholes that need to be addressed: the nutrient criteria, the forms of media, the coverage of the media, the age of children.

Also there is a review of the EU platform on nutrition and PA, and we are going to look at the mandates of the platform and the commitments made to the platform, and I guess that the issue of advertising to children will be one of the issues that will pop up again – reformulation of products, etc.

Is food marketing always about obesity?

For us it is about allowing consumers to make healthy and informed food choices in general. Obesity is a huge issue and is probably spurring people to act more quickly. But at the end of the day, food information is there to allow consumers to make an informed and, ultimately, healthier choice.

Healthy eating and lifestyles seems to be a rather complex issue. How big a role do you think advertising and marketing play in making food choices?

Difficult to say, but if you come back to the claim issue, we have research showing that almost 70%  of people choose a product because of a claim, so you could say that they play a major role. But we don’t have any specific figures on this.

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