Food firms 'market to children online'

Girl using internet
Image caption Most children use the internet at home

Unhealthy food is being "shamelessly" promoted to children online to get around bans on television adverts, campaigners have claimed.

The British Heart Foundation cited websites by Cadbury's and Nestle as examples of "cynical marketing".

Sites used childish language, games and free gifts to appeal to children, according to the report.

But an Advertising Association spokesman insisted online promotion to children was strictly controlled.

The vast majority of UK children now use the internet at home, often in preference to television viewing.

The Advertising Standards Authority's broadcasting code prohibits adverts for unhealthy food within children's television programmes, or any programme which appeals to under-16s.

However, this code does not extend to material on websites aimed at children, although a separate regulation forbids any advert which might encourage "poor nutritional habits" or an "unhealthy lifestyle" in children.

Despite this, the BHF, alongside the Children's Food Campaign, says that this different approach gives firms more scope to promote unhealthy foods.

With a significant proportion of children overweight or obese, even at primary school age, they want the blanket ban on marketing extended to cover the web.

'Preying on children'

Examples of websites cited by the campaign was a site promoting Nesquik - a milkshake powder high in sugar.

Titled the "Imagination Station", the site is hosted by an animated rabbit character and including a quiz game and a guide to making a spacesuit.

Another site, for Cadbury's Buttons, which contain 6.2g of saturated fat per packet, was called "Buttons Furry Tales", and also involved animated characters, games and puzzles, although an "adult" year of birth had to be provided to gain entry.

A third, for Cheestrings, manufactured by Kerry Foods, involves a personal greeting from another cartoon character, and a list describing 101 things they can do before they are 11.5 years old.

Cheestrings fall foul of the children's television ban because each portion contains a third more salt than an average pack of ready salted crisps.

Mubeen Bhutta, from the BHF, said: "Junk food manufacturers are preying on children and targeting them with fun and games they know will hold their attention.

"Regulation protects our children from these cynical marketing tactics while they're watching their favourite television programmes but there is no protection when they are online."

Charlie Powell, from the Children's Food Campaign, said that the government was "demonstrating complacency" when it should be providing "robust regulation".

'Responsible marketing'

However, a government spokesman said that it did not have direct responsibility for setting advertising codes.

A spokesman for the Advertising Standards Authority, an independent body which regulates the advertising industry, said that if campaigners felt that a specific website breached the online code, it should complain.

"We rigorously administer strict advertising food rules that apply across media, including online, in the interests of the public.

"The rules are very clear: ads must not condone or encourage poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children."

A spokesman for Nestle, which makes Nesquik, said it did not market products directly to under-sixes, and would only market products to under-12s which met a "strict nutritional profile".

The "Imagination Station" site was aimed at parents, not children, she said.

A spokesman for Cadburys also said that the "Furry Tales" site was aimed at parents, but added that it did not meet the marketing policies of parent company Kraft Foods and was scheduled to be closed within weeks.

A spokesman for Kerry Foods, which makes Cheestrings, said that the product contained a similar amount of salt to cheddar cheese.

He said: "We are firm believers in responsible marketing and we ensure that everything we do is within the regulations set by the various governing bodies."

And the Advertising Association, an industry body, attacked the BHF's campaign, accusing it of "manipulating the facts" and ignoring those which did not support its case.

A spokesman said: "Nobody wants a marketing free-for-all but demands for bans based on hyperbole threaten people's jobs, affordable media and a choice of foods we all enjoy."

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