Opinion piece to The Australian: Another voluntary code for advertisers has alarm bells ringing

Thursday 17 April, 2008


Advertisers are skilled at selling things in the best possible light - this applies not only to the products they promote, but also to the 'self-regulatory' rules they develop which ‘appear' to keep advertising in check.  

The Australian Association of National Advertisers (AANA) - the industry body representing Australian advertisers - has released a revised Code for Advertising and Marketing Communications to Children claiming that ‘pester power' and sexual imagery in children's advertising is now prohibited.  This would be a welcome development for many parents sick of resisting their kids' constant cajoling for promoted products, but if previous codes released by AANA are anything to go by, they shouldn't breathe a sigh of relief just yet. 

In 2006, AANA launched a Food and Beverages Advertising and Marketing Communications Code with similar bold claims that it would mark the end of celebrities, toys and pester power in food advertising to children, and remove any need for government regulation in this area. Any parent will tell you that such marketing ploys are still very much part of food marketing to their children, so in this context, very little has changed since the Code was introduced.

The Advertising Standards Board (which adjudicates complaints under the AANA self-regulatory codes) is yet to uphold a single complaint under the Food Code, and this is certainly not because food advertisers have been acting more responsibly. There has been no apparent abatement in advertisers' use of sports stars, free toys, popular movies and other creative strategies to entice children to pressure parents for junk, or the overwhelming volume of this advertising in proportion to ads for healthy food.

Since the Code's release, we've seen armies of green ogres storm supermarket aisles, TV and computer screens - leaving scores of Shrek-branded products in their wake - and similar onslaughts of Simpsons, Spiderman, and Sponge-Bob Square Pants promotions for sugary breakfast cereals, burgers and sweets.

During cricket ad breaks over summer, kids' cricket heroes discussed which KFC fare they'd be scoffing for their next meal. And food companies such as Cadbury and Nestle have been luring children to promotional websites, providing opportunities for marketers to interact directly with children and collect information about them for future marketing endeavours.

The Food Code's lack of impact is unsurprising - and we can expect similar results from the new Children's Code. Both codes are contrived to appear to address particularly irresponsible or exploitative advertising, but their provisions are blunt, imprecise and narrow, and fail to impose any meaningful limits on promotional strategies that are effective, and actually used, to influence kids to desire and pester for advertised products.

For example, if you read the Food Code, you might reasonably assume it prevents advertisers from creating pester power. The Food Code states that food ads to children shall not include any direct appeals to urge parents to buy products for them, and the Children's Code contains similar clauses. But we all know - and indeed so do advertisers - that telling kids to ask parents to buy products is a pretty unsophisticated marketing strategy. A more effective way to create pester power is to use movie characters, toys and celebrities to make kids desire advertised products - then leave it to them to work out how to convince mum or dad to buy it for them.

There are also some broader problems with AANA's self-regulatory scheme. Compliance with AANA's codes isn't monitored, so enforcement relies entirely on complaints from the public, and there are no sanctions for advertisers who breach a code. The most the Advertising Standards Board can do is ask an advertiser to voluntarily withdraw an offending ad, but this is hardly likely to deter wayward advertisers, especially since ad campaigns will often have finished running by the time a determination is made. The Board's decisions can't be appealed, and the Board will not hear complaints about ads it has considered in the past five years, even if novel issues are raised or a complaint is made under an entirely different code.

But the real reason self-regulation of advertising to children will never be effective is that there is a fundamental conflict between advertisers' commercial interest in being able to continue advertising in way that's effective for encouraging children to desire and demand products, and the public interest in removing or moderating these influences on children. 

Companies' motivation for advertising to children is obviously to sell products, and it is unrealistic to expect them to voluntarily submit to regulation that may impede achievement of this aim. Indeed, advertisers' only real incentive to self-regulate is to deflect government regulation that may have this effect. As a result, the industry will only develop and comply with voluntary codes to the extent this creates a façade of responsible conduct and is useful as a public relations tool. But this will fall far short of regulation that places meaningful limits on effective advertising practices, which (particularly in the area of junk food advertising) is exactly what is needed to protect the interests of children.

Once again advertisers will be the only winners.

Sarah MacKay
Legal Advisor
Obesity Policy Coalition