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Advertising Standards Authority fails to address the rights of children in marketing unhealthy foods

Main entrance to the University at night

Wednesday 28 April 2010 12:56pm

Public health researchers from the University of Otago, Wellington have just published a study criticising the New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority’s inadequate regulation of food advertising to children.

The research shows that the Authority’s implementation of the voluntary Code for Advertising to Children, and the Code for Advertising of Food, includes partial, unjustified and inconsistent decision making by the Complaints Board which adjudicates on specific adverts.

The research also says that there is a failure in some cases to implement the new codes and a failure to prevent unhealthy food being advertised directly to children.

Overall the study shows that the New Zealand self-regulatory system for controlling advertising to children, through the ASA, does not work with regard to unhealthy food; that which is high in fat, sugar and salt.

“This is a breach of the spirit of United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, or UNCROC, to which we’ve long been signatories,” says lead researcher, Ms Louise Thornley.

“In our analysis it specifically breaches articles 3, 6, and 13 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child.”

“This is particularly significant in societies like New Zealand where one in three children are overweight or obese, many of whom will have further health problems in adulthood because of poor eating habits encouraged by the advertising of unhealthy junk food.”

The research closely analysed decisions on complaints carried out during the first six months of the current codes (2006). It says that the decisions by the Board:

  • fail to acknowledge the targeting of children to ‘pester’ parents for unhealthy food as valid grounds for complaint
  • and that there is substantial ‘screening out’ of advertising complaints by the Chair of the Board before they can be considered

An example of the failure of the ASA’s watchdog role is that it does not acknowledge in its codes the contradiction between the advertising of unhealthy food to children, and Government policy on encouraging healthy eating.

The code for advertising of food states that advertising should not undermine the Ministry of Health’s Food and Nutrition Guidelines, but pervasive advertising to children encourages consumption of unhealthy foods. The ASA review did not recognise this discrepancy, and provided no criteria for assessing what type of advertising would undermine the guidelines.

The study says there is selective interpretation of UNCROC’s articles, and contradictory application of children’s rights.

“One Board decision we looked at ruled that the advertiser had not directed the ad at children and therefore the children’s code did not apply. But in fact the main actor was a child, the product was lollies and the ad was screened at 6.50pm when many children are still watching TV.

“In another ad which ran for several weeks, potato chips were promoted as ‘an ideal addition to a healthy balanced school lunch’; totally inconsistent with Government policy on healthy eating,” says Louise Thornley.

The researchers say that a strong argument can be made for more government control over the marketing of unhealthy food, not only in New Zealand, but also globally. These include a ban on advertising to children under 12, as exists in Sweden, Norway and Quebec, and restrictions on food advertising.

In New Zealand there is a high level of support for restricting or banning unhealthy food advertising to children. A 2007 survey by health organisations of 400 parents and grandparents found 82% wanted a ban on such advertising.

The study concludes by stating that regulation of the marketing of food to children would reduce the negative effects of a poor diet. It points out that there are no financial sanctions for blatantly breaching the ASA code, with the advertiser usually withdrawing the ad after a lengthy complaint procedure, by which time the advert has often concluded its scheduled run in the media.

This study was funded by the University of Otago and published in the international journal Critical Public Health.

For further information

Ms Louise Thornley
Tel 4 381 2878
Mob 021 032 4537
Website University of Otago, Wellington

For a list of Otago experts available for media comment, please go to