Leading Australian food brands, including confectionary maker Mars, have been caught out increasingly marketing junk food to children through television ads. This has led one marketing expert to question the effectiveness of regulations that appear to have no “teeth”.
Mars, the maker of brands such as M&M’s and Skittles, has topped a list of food brands that have breached the voluntary Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative, recording 102 breaches of the code in a three-month period last year.
This compares to 25 breaches from Mars in a similar time period two years ago, although Mars did reduce the number of times it breached the code between 2013 and 2014.
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The increase in code breaches is detailed in the latest compliance report from the Australian Food and Grocery Council, published by Fairfax.
A total of 17 brands are signatures to the code, which counts as a breach any screening of an advertisement for junk food during a children’s television program.
Mars is not the only company to record breaches during 2014, with PepsiCo, Campbell Arnott’s, Coca-Cola and Unilever making up the top five.
However, Mars’ 102 breaches far outstrip PepsiCo’s 59 breaches during the same time period.
Among the Mars ads found to be in breach of the code were an ad for Skittles lollies, which was screened eight times during programs in which at least a third of the audience would have been children.
In a statement issued to SmartCompany this morning, Mars Australia said it is committed to adhering to the code and “concerned by the breaches recorded in 2014”.
But Mars said the majority of the breaches occurred because of changes to television programming schedules.
“Upon investigation by an independent auditor, it was revealed that 43% of the breaches resulted from instances where the programming was unknown at the time the booking was made,” Mars Australia said.
“A further 22% were the result of bonus airtime provided by the television network at short notice.”
“While we achieved a 28% reduction in breaches from last year, the company recognises there are still improvements to make and will partner with both internal and external stakeholders to enhance processes and ensure compliance.”
Similar responses were provided to the Food and Grocery Council by other signatories to the code, including Campbell Arnott’s in response to advertisements for Tim Tams and Shapes that were found to have breached the code.
“The Tim Tam advertisements reported appeared as a result of scheduling changes and placement of evening movies prior to the scheduling being released,” Campbell Arnott’s said.
“Arnott’s is working with its media agency and the network to address the process for booking airtime during these periods and is implementing steps to ensure scheduling changes are considered prior to programs going to air.”
Independent brand expert Michel Hogan told SmartCompany this morning deflecting blame to other companies such as the television networks is a “classic” response from large advertisers.
But Hogan says this is only possible in circumstances were marketing codes have “no real teeth”.
“Unless it has teeth, it’s not going to provide any driver to change what they do,” she says.
Hogan says the effectiveness of voluntary codes is also limited “in the face of the sheer magnitude of the day-to-day marketing budgets” of large corporations.
But while Hogan says breaching a code may be like water off a duck’s back for large businesses, SMEs can’t ignore the reputational affects associated with not complying.
“Small business don’t have those very large budgets to offset any of that stuff,” she says.