Most 'unhealthy' food ads on TV targeted at children, researchers say Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Source: Stuff, 6 June 2017

Large numbers of adverts for "unhealthy" food are being shown on TV during peak viewing times for children, Auckland University researchers say.

But that also happens to be the time when large numbers of adults are watching. They are not the times when programmes aimed specifically at children are broadcast.

The proportion of unhealthy food advertisements displayed during designated children's programmes was "very low" and almost exclusively on weekends, the researchers said in a paper published in Public Health Nutrition.

But 88 per cent of "unhealthy" food ads were shown at times when the children's audience was at its largest, with audience size based on data from market research company AC Nielsen.

According to definitions used by the researchers "almost all unhealthy food advertisements shown on New Zealand television were specifically targeted at children".

One of the definitions used for saying ads are being targeted at children is simply if they're shown during the times when the size of the children's audience peaks. The other definitions are ads shown during designated children's programmes; and those that contain promotional strategies or premium offers known to appeal to children. Only one of the definitions needs to be met for the researchers to consider an ad is marketed at children.

The researchers said 24.8 per cent of total food ads had promotional characters targeting children, while 1.8 per cent had premium offers targeting children.

McDonald's queried the definitions used by the researchers in determining whether an ad was targeted at children.

During the period covered by the survey, the company said, it had ads in primetime TV for Serious Angus burgers, McCafe coffee, Share Boxes, Big Mac, hash browns and Happy Meals.

"It's clear the majority of those advertisements are not targeting children. Even the Happy Meal advertisement, which shows water, a chicken wrap and apple slices and a health and wellbeing message, is intended to be seen by parents," McDonald's said.

"We also question what children actually do during advertising breaks and if they are watching ads. Simply put, we advertise in primetime television to convey a message to adults."

The Auckland University research was published about a month before a new  Children and Young People's Advertising Code, adopted by the Advertising Standards Authority, comes into effect. All advertising to children and young people must comply with the code from October 2.

University senior research fellow Dr Stefanie Vandevijvere, who led the advertising study, said it was uncertain to what extent the new code would address some of the concerns raised by the research.

The researchers counted adverts shown on TV1, TV2 and TV3 between 6am and midnight on eight days in the three months between June and August 2015. Four of the days were weekdays, two were Saturdays and two were Sundays. Altogether 432 hours of TV were surveyed.

The researchers said the work was the largest study of food advertising on TV carried out in New Zealand.

A total of 10,471 adverts were recorded, of which 17.3 per cent - more than 1800 - were for food. 

More than two-thirds of the food ads contained foods that according to World Health Organisation standards should not be marketed to children, Vandevijvere said. 

From 6-7pm, when more than 120,000 5-13 year-olds were watching TV, more than 15 unhealthy food advertisements appeared per hour, Vandevijvere said.

According to the  study, McDonald's had more unhealthy food ads targeted at children than anyone else, with 134. Burger King was second with 110, then Countdown with 66, and KFC with 65.

"The volume and nature of the advertising to which children are exposed on television suggest that industry self-regulation has not been effective in New Zealand," the paper said.

Peak viewing time was defined several ways in the study, and was calculated  for children - those aged 5-13 - and for adolescents who were 14-18. Probably the simplest definition of peak time is when more than 100,000 children, or more than 50,000 adolescents are watching.

On that basis, the peak weekday viewing time for children is 5.30pm to 8.30pm, and for adolescents it is 6pm to 10pm. On Saturdays it is 5.30pm to 9.30pm for children, and 6pm to 10pm for adolescents. On Sundays 5pm to 8.30pm for children, and 6pm to 9.30pm for adolescents.

The researchers were unhappy with a provision in the new advertising code that would limit unhealthy food ads during programming times when children comprise at least 25 per cent of the total audience.

"This is not a logical definition," the paper said. "...having more adults in the audience will reduce the percentage of children watching but not the total number or percentage of children watching."