Consumer targets child food tricks
October 7, 2013
By Olivia Wannan
If the Government is serious about reversing the obesity epidemic, it must introduce tough new rules on the packaging of children’s treats, Consumer NZ says.
The consumer advocacy group is calling for the control of marketing gimmicks on food packaging – particularly cartoon characters, free toys and on-packet puzzles targeting children.
Consumer chief executive Sue Chetwin said under-13s were particularly susceptible to tricks of the advertising trade. With a person’s lifelong food preferences formed at an early age, if companies rope them in young, they’ll likely be hooked for life, the watchdog’s report says.
American researchers have found children preferred the taste of McDonald’s-branded food over that in plain packaging, even though both were identical – and the same effect was seen with cartoon characters like Dora the Explorer.
Chetwin said licensing kids’ characters from companies like Disney was costly, and companies would not invest the cash unless they knew it would pay off.
Free gifts and collectibles were taken quite seriously by children, she said, pointing to the huge popularity of New World’s Little Shop collectibles.
“When they had All Blacks cards in breakfast cereals … kids were even fighting in the playground over these cards.”
While advertising to children on TV, radio, print and social media is covered by strict codes enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority, marketing on the actual products is not regulated.
“There’s this whole ‘blitzkrieg’ of promotional temptation,” Chetwin said
Consumer was asking the Government to set out a framework specifying what marketing techniques could and could not be used on children’s food packaging.
Health Minister Tony Ryall said the Government had no plans to introduce such regulation.
The United Kingdom, however, was currently drafting a code that included on-pack marketing tactics like the use of brand characters, Chetwin said.
Food and Grocery Council head Katherine Rich said many food and beverage companies already regulated themselves, including Mars and Coca-Cola.
But she doubted government regulation would earn public support.
“Do they really want plain-packaged chocolate: no Cookie Bear, Milky Bar Kid or Freddo Frog? Obesity is clearly an issue but banning all childhood fun is not the answer.”
But Otago University health researcher Louise Signal supported Consumer’s call, arguing that with nearly a third of New Zealand children obese, dramatic steps needed to be taken. Lack of regulation had failed children, she said.
“Parents all know the power of junk-food marketing to children.”
The World Health Organisation’s obesity initiatives endorsed legislative regulation of on-packet marketing as well as advertising, Signal said.
Food Industry Group chairman Lindsay Mouat said he had seen no evidence the removal of such pack designs would make any significant change to average dietary intake for children.
“Most parents are comfortably able to make decisions about their children’s diet.”
A PROBLEM MANY PARENTS FACE
Miramar dad Paul Tryon says marketing gimmicks like New World’s Little Shop collectibles can make things tough for parents.
The toys have really struck a chord with his daughters Briar, 7, and Sarah, 10. A slight fight had broken out over where to go for the weekly shop yesterday, with the girls begging for New World and its Little Shop toys, which come free with every $40 spent.
Dad won with his choice of Pak ‘n Save Kilbirnie, but the pleading for treats at the supermarket happened every week – usually for doughnuts and icecreams.
“They definitely have their brand preferences. They get drawn visually to things. You do get pushed to buy a product for them you wouldn’t usually.”
However, he was not overly concerned at the levels of on-packet marketing aimed at children.
“They get one treat, to get them through – if they’re good.”
Consumer NZ found a variety of techniques designed to hook interest.
Games and puzzles: These encourage kids to read the packaging and become familiar with the brand.
Cartoon characters and movie tie-ins: Well-loved figures like Shrek and Dora the Explorer encourage young consumers to remember a product and even influence how tasty they believe the product is.
Gifts and collectibles: Free toys catch kids’ attention – and encourage them to pester their parents to buy the product again.
Websites and apps: Companies can reinforce their brand through their website or a game app.
Healthy spin: Parents are often appealed to with claims about being made from real or natural ingredients, painting a distorted picture of the nutritional value.