‘Junk food’ marketing: NZ industry and health groups divided over ‘physical and mental harm’ claims

By Pearly Neo contact

- Last updated on GMT

The food and retail industry in New Zealand has fired back against a recently-published study claiming that ‘junk food’ marketing that children are subjected to may cause them ‘physical, mental and moral harm’. ©Getty Images
The food and retail industry in New Zealand has fired back against a recently-published study claiming that ‘junk food’ marketing that children are subjected to may cause them ‘physical, mental and moral harm’. ©Getty Images

Related tags: New zealand, Junk food, Junk food marketing, Children

The food and retail industry in New Zealand has fired back against a recently-published study claiming that ‘junk food’ marketing that children are subjected to may cause them ‘physical, mental and moral harm’.

The study, titled ‘Prime Minister for a day: children’s views on junk food marketing and what to do about it’​ was conducted by researchers from the University of Otago and published in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

It has been cited by various campaigners for taxes on sugar, salt, fat and bans on advertising.

In the study, the authors claimed that ‘children’s exposure to junk food marketing may cause them physical, mental and moral harm, in direct contradiction of the New Zealand self-regulatory code for marketing’​.

They added that according to the children, they were ‘frequently exposed to food marketing, and persuaded, against their better judgement, to purchase food they knew to be harmful to their health’​.

The study’s sample size was 33 children– a key point of dissention for the food and retail industry in New Zealand.

“The sample size was tiny. 33 children is only a classroom size of kids, [too few] for a study now being used to lobby the Government for such a widespread significant change​ New Zealand Food and Grocery Council (FGC) CEO Katherine Rich told FoodNavigator-Asia.

“It presents some interesting feedback but not the sort of study any reasonable government official would make policy based on. Certainly it provides no evidence to back any claims of harm.”

“As a contribution to world dialogue, this research paper is not the New Zealand Medical Journal’s finest hour.”

‘Persuasive’ research

The study also claimed that ‘many’​ of the children recognised the ‘unhealthy nature’​ of the foods being promoted, and said ‘they would take action to reduce junk food marketing if they were Prime Minister for a day’​.

“The aim of this study was to pressure the government and that’s obvious just by looking at the title of the paper referring to the Prime Minister,”​ said Rich.

“[This] is but the latest example of what Professor Boyd Swinburn once referred to as ‘persuasive’ research [which] can be used as a political campaign tool by academics to put pressure on politicians, but, in my opinion, does little else.”

“While not dismissing hearing children’s views, using the equivalent of one class-room of kids as a basis of policy change sounds more like a PR campaign tactic than actually addressing the issue.”

Examples of Rich’s claims were visible in several mainstream news reports.

For example, the New Zealand Herald​ stated that ‘Kiwi kids have made an unlikely plea to Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern: ban junk food marketing’​, and the Otago Daily Times​ quoted the authors as saying ‘government leadership [is needed] to ban junk food marketing to protect our children and promote their wellbeing’​.

Exaggerated and misleading

Another of the report’s main arguments was that the children were being exposed to an average of 27 unhealthy food advertisements a day, but Rich dismissed this as ‘exaggerated and misleading’.

“[The academics] counted seeing food wrappers and packaging in school lunchboxes, biscuit tins and in their cupboards at home. They even counted seeking packs on supermarket shelves when shopping,” s​he said.

“[By] any stretch of the imagination, [these counts] would have greatly inflated the numbers.”

Junk food advertising regulations in place

Current advertising regulations in New Zealand are governed under the Children and Young People’s Advertising Code, which falls under the purview of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA).

According to the ASA website, ‘Care should be taken to ensure that the product and style of advertisement is appropriate for the intended audience’​, especially a younger audience that ‘is influenced by age, experience and the context in which the message is delivered​.”

Rich expressed doubts that the children were aware about the ASA Code and how strictly its regulations are governed.

“[Were the children] told that in New Zealand, advertising must be truthful and accurate otherwise the Commerce Commission or the ASA will step-in? [Or] about the strict rules around the advertising to children set out in the Advertising Standards Advisory Code?”​ she said.

“FGC members either have policies in place where they don’t advertise to children at all, or they adhere to the ASA Code.”

Dissenting voices

That said, NZFGC’s response has been described by other parties as ‘not good enough’​ when it comes to appropriating self-regulation.

“[The] study shows how aware children are of marketing of junk food, including sugary drinks,”​ said Dr Rob Beaglehole, New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) sugary drinks spokesperson and advisor to Health Minister David Clark.

“[Frankly], the response from industry representatives FGC of ‘don’t worry, people can complain to the Commerce Commission or ASA’ isn’t practical or good enough.”

Citing a 2017 NZDA complaint to ASA over a Pepsi Max advertising campaign, he said that this complaint was settled after ‘the advertiser took the adverts down voluntarily’.

“This highlights the problem of what essentially is industry self-regulation that is not working. [We] had to identify an issue, enact a complaint, and it didn’t lead to a disincentive to that type of approach to marketing, as the campaign had already run its course,” ​Dr Beaglehole said.

NZDA is leading a Consensus Statement on Sugary Drinks endorsed by several public health groups.

The statement has requested: Clear icons indicating sugar content in drinks, independent monitoring of food marketing, adoption of WHO sugar guidelines, a campaign encouraging the public to switch to water, ‘water-only’ policies and a sugary drinks tax.

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