Marketing manipulation? UK health groups call for on-pack cartoon character ban
Survey finds that beloved children’s characters are used on-pack to market high fat, sugar and salt products, leading to calls for robust regulation
04 Jun 2019 --- A coalition of health groups are calling on the UK government to ban popular cartoon characters from being used on packaging to market unhealthy products to children. A new food and drink survey singles out children’s TV favorites, such as Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol, as examples of hugely popular animated characters that are “deliberately manipulating” parents and children. Action on Sugar, Action on Salt and Children’s Food Campaign also urge government to mandate “traffic light” nutrition labeling after finding half of more than 500 food and drink products which use cartoon animations on-pack are high in fat, saturated fat, sugar and/or salt.
The health groups claim this type of marketing can encourage “pester power” and excessive consumption among children, concluding that an outright ban is the only way to stop such brand mascots and characters from being used irresponsibly.
In what is believed to be the biggest survey of its kind, the organizations involved with the Children’s Food Campaign found that some products using popular TV and film characters comprised 99 percent sugar and half of all products surveyed are so unhealthy that they couldn’t be advertised on TV during children’s programs, or on the Transport for London network, for instance.
Click to EnlargeJunk food adverts are prohibited on London Underground, train, tram and bus services unless they are marketing healthy products.
“It was shocking to find many products that aren't allowed to advertise to children on children’s TV can freely advertise and target children on packaging,” Registered Nutritionist Dr. Kawther Hashem, Campaign Lead at Action on Sugar based at Queen Mary University of London, tells NutritionInsight.
Calling for compulsory “traffic light” nutrition labeling Compulsory “traffic light” nutrition labeling would give parents the chance to make healthier choices, say the groups. The majority of products, however, did not have “traffic light” nutrition labeling, making it difficult for consumers to work out at a glance what is and is not healthy.
The organizations also point out that if marketing on children’s packaging were to follow the same advertising codes as set by the Committee for Advertising Practices for broadcast advertising in the UK, half would fail the eligibility criteria and, therefore, would not be allowed to be advertised to audiences under the age of 16. As a result, they urge that this criteria be extended to all forms of media as well as to any program watched by a child.
This very topic is currently being discussed in the Government’s latest consultation on further advertising restrictions for products high in fat, salt and sugar.
Health groups also note that reformulating to healthier alternatives is also entirely possible.
Further survey results More than one in five (21 percent) of products used licensed characters, such as Disney, Peppa Pig and Paw Patrol, that are often well recognized by young children. More than a third (37 percent) were found on confectionery, chocolate, cakes and ice cream, which are not recommended for regular consumption.
Thirty-two of the 94 products surveyed (34 percent) using licensed characters have a red label for either fat, saturated fat, sugars and/or salt, classifying them as being unhealthy, according to the survey.
Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig were branded “the worst character offenders,” with 57 percent of products with Paw Patrol and 50 percent with Peppa Pig imagery being high in fat, salt and/or sugar.
Paw Patrol Milk Chocolate Coins with 60 percent sugar are just one example. Eating four coins would provide a four to six-year-old with 12g sugar. This is almost two-thirds of their maximum daily recommended intake.
Click to EnlargeMeanwhile, of the 434 products that use brand mascots and characters appealing to children, 53 percent would receive a red (high) warning label on pack for sugar, such as Dr. Moo Quick Milk Magic Sipper Strawberry was packed with the most sugar – 94.0g/100g.
Taking responsibility Speaking about other studies that support or that show how packaging can appeal to children, Dr. Hashem points out that there have been several on the subject.
In a 2017 study in Melbourne, Australia, 900 children, (aged five to nine) showed a preference for unhealthy meals over healthier ones. However, children were significantly more likely to select a healthier meal over an unhealthy meal when only the healthier meals were accompanied by MTIP (movie tie in premiums), she explains.
“When healthier meals were accompanied by a MTIP, children reported the meal looked better, would taste better, they would be more likely to ask their parents for this meal, and they would feel happier if their parents bought them this meal, compared to when the healthier meal was not accompanied by a MTIP. Results suggest that modifying the food marketing environment to restrict MTIPs to healthier meals should encourage healthier fast food meal choices by children.”
Another study involved 209 children (aged four to eight) from schools and childcare centers in the UK. This study asked children to rate taste preference on three matched food pairs; one with brand equity character, the other without.
Results showed children were significantly more likely to prefer food with a brand equity character. The conclusion drawn was that “displaying brand equity characters promotes unhealthy food choices in children. The findings are consistent with those of studies exploring other types of promotional characters. In the context of a childhood obesity epidemic, the use of brand equity characters in the promotion of foods high in fat, salt and sugar to children should be restricted.”
The survey notes that only 18 healthy food and drink products, such as fruit, vegetables and water, used on-pack child-friendly animations. Lidl came out as the best retailer in that respect with its Oaklands range of fruit and vegetables.
“It’s shocking that companies are exploiting the health of our children by using cartoon characters on their high sugar food and drink products, particularly on chocolates and sweets, which are already hard to resist for children. Do we really need to entice children to want these products more and pester their parents to buy them? It is time for regulation to curtail the industry’s unhealthy habits,” adds Dr. Hashem.