This article is part of our special report Vulnerable Consumers.
The European Parliament has renewed calls to curb food and beverage advertising aimed at children and young people, with some MEPs even calling for a total ban on beer commercials aimed at youth. But it's not necessary, says the industry, "We can regulate ourselves".
The European Parliament in a resolution last week (22 May) called on the EU Commission to analyse "whether stricter rules are needed regarding advertising aimed at children and young people," who are considered more vulnerable than other consumer groups.
Children and young people "are more sensitive to advertising for food with high fat, salt and sugar content," the Parliament resolution says, underlining that this particular age group "increasingly suffer the consequences of sedentariness and obesity".
In the Parliament's firing line are practices described as "aggressive or misleading TV and online advertising" aimed at children and adolescents. The resolution also recommended educational campaigns on diet and health aimed at children.
At issue is whether the food and beverage industry can effectively regulate its own advertising practices.
But Sam Rowe, spokeswoman for UNESDA, the European non-alcoholic beverages association, says lawmakers should not worry. "The European Parliament is trying to make companies be responsible. And we fully support that. We think it's important to be responsible in your marketing and consumer outreach," said Rowe, who speaks on behalf of companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, the Orangina Schweppes Group, Nestlé Waters, Danone and Red Bull.
"We think self-regulation works effectively and quickly," she added.
UNESDA members, she said, are aware of their appeal to young people and children and have already committed in 2006 to refrain from advertising to children under 12 on TV, print, online or social media.
"We don't advertise there because we respect that children are vulnerable and we think that it's the parents' responsibility to make a decision, not the children," Rowe said, adding that UNESDA members have also decided not to sell their products at primary schools across the 27 EU member states.
Push for ban on beer commercials
Some MEPs want strict legislation to protect specific vulnerable groups such as adolescents. For instance, Green Danish MEP Emilie Turunen has called for a total ban on alcohol commercials targeted at youth.
"Some countries have strict regulation and some have some liberal approaches, and I would like to see a common approach in Europe," she said, highlighting that the internet has opened some new pitfalls.
MEP Christel Schaldemose from the Socialist and Democrats group (S&D), said she definitely believed that there should be tighter legislation to prevent alcohol companies from targeting young people with aggressive marketing.
"But to be frank, I don’t know how big a support there is behind this," she said. "Every time we have looked at the legislation, there has been a massive lobbying from the alcohol companies to try to avoid regulations because there are so many wine and alcohol producers in Europe," she said.
Responsible alcohol marketing pact
Simon Spillane is Senior Advisor at The Brewers of Europe, an association that represents the European brewing sector. He says it isn't necessary to introduce stricter regulation within the EU as brewers have already committed themselves to comprehensive self-regulation that operates across all media.
"There are self-regulatory codes and implementation guidelines covering beer advertising in place across the EU, at regional, national and company level," Spillane said. "All these codes prohibit the targeting of minors under the legal purchasing age with any advertising for beer. This means that neither will the advert’s content be targeted at minors, nor will the advert appear, for example, during a children’s TV programme or in a magazine for adolescents," he stated.
According to Spillane, The Brewers of Europe don't have a definition of a vulnerable consumer, but the self-regulatory codes typically state that minors should not be targeted by beer advertising or encouraged to consume. Brewers have launched an EU Beer Pledge which ensures that digital and social media are also covered by the marketing pledge.
In April, the eight largest alcohol manufacturers in Europe have launched common EU-wide guidelines designed to prevent minors from seeing alcohol ‘viral’ adverts on social media, and prohibit the creation of ads which seek to allure young people. The so-called Responsible Marketing Pact, was signed by AB InBev, Bacardi, Brown-Forman, Carlsberg, Diageo, Heineken, Pernod Ricard and SAB Miller, which together represent a majority of European alcohol advertising spending.
This flurry of activity highlights worries in the beverage and food industry about the risk of tighter EU regulation. Whether lawmakers in the European Parliament will be convinced remains to be seen.