April 24th, 2006

Happy Meals To Go: The Fat Backlash

By Julian Lee
Sydney Morning Herald (Australia)

Promotional toys such as those in McDonald’s Happy Meals and the use of celebrities could disappear from junk food advertising within a year under radical proposals drawn up by the food and marketing industries.

Pester power - marketing that urges children to hound their parents into buying certain products - could also be banished under the food and beverage marketing code.

The measures are part of an industry attempt to head off the threat of legislation to ban junk food advertising as governments come under increasing pressure from voters to stop the rising levels of childhood obesity.

If the code is approved, Australia will be the first Western nation t to introduce such measures, an indication of the industry’s readiness to strike a compromise in order to maintain self-regulation.

The move follows a Herald report at the weekend showing that a quarter of NSW schoolchildren are overweight, despite higher participation in sport and other exercise. Experts blamed the trend on excessive consumption of sugary and fatty foods, especially sweetened soft drinks.

According to a draft of the code seen by the Herald, advertisements directed at children for food and beverages “shall not include any direct appeal to children to urge parents to buy particular products for them” - so-called pester power.

Another clause says advertisements “can’t use personalities live or animated to sell products, premiums [promotional toys] or services without clearly distinguishing between commercial promotion and program or editorial content”. That would rule out use of entertainers such as former Play School presenter Monica Trapaga, who was criticised by parents last year for appearing on ads for Kellogg’s Coco Pops.

But yesterday the chairman of the body that represents advertising agencies broke industry ranks and went a step further, calling for the words “pester power” to be included in the code, which is likely to encounter opposition from some food marketers.

Russel Howcroft, of the Advertising Federation of Australia, said: “We need to make the distinction between what is and what isn’t appropriate advertising. As a parent, I don’t think it’s appropriate to ask children to ask their parents to buy something.”

He also added that the industry needs to make “crystal clear” the role a toy or gimmick plays in a decision by a child to choose one product over another. Last year a group of parents voted the Happy Meals ads the winner of the Pester Power Award.

Nutritionists have already voiced concerns over the code, which is backed by advertisers and the food industry, which is being considered by state and federal health departments.

The executive officer of the Australasian Society for the Study of Obesity, Dr Tim Gill, favours legislation because he does not trust advertisers to comply with their own code.

“McDonald’s say that in keeping with the current [ad industry] code that the toy in its Happy Meals promotion is incidental, when in fact it is a major part of the advertising. They argue it is part of the whole offer and so legally it’s a smart answer. The wording of the code is so vague that it will allow the lawyers to tie it up in arguments about the definitions of personalities and what is a toy.”

McDonald’s says it needs to review the code in more detail before it will comment.

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