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Food makers using cartoon characters to sell kids junk food: research

More than half of supermarket products marketed at kids are unhealthy, according to research from the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC).

The OPC surveyed 186 packaged foods with cartoons or character promotions designed to attract children – 52 percent were classified as unhealthy by the Food Standards Australia New Zealand (FSANZ) Nutrient Profiling Scoring Criterion calculator, which looks at the amount of energy and certain nutrients (e.g. saturated fat, sugars, sodium) present in the food.

OPC Executive Manager Jane Martin said at a time when 27 per cent of Australian children are overweight or obese, it’s shocking to see so many manufacturers directly targeting children with unhealthy food.

“It’s extremely frustrating to see cartoons and animations being used to lure children and create pester power to push parents into buying unhealthy products for kids,” Ms Martin said.

“Children are naturally drawn to fun, colourful characters on foods in the supermarket, and food companies are fully aware of this. They know that children have an incredible amount of power over what their parents buy[i], and that’s why Chile, a country that has been very progressive in obesity prevention, has restricted the use of cartoons on unhealthy food packaging.

“It’s a shame that this powerful marketing tactic is not being used to sell more healthy products instead.”

Among the unhealthy products which used cartoons to appeal to children were Kellogg’s Frosties, which are 41 percent sugar, and Kraft Cheestik Sticks which contain 17.5g of saturated fat per 100g.

Food advertising in Australia is basically self-regulated, leaving food and advertising industries to make and break their own rules. Current industry-led regulations do not cover food packaging.

“In Australia, the use of cartoons and characters on food and drink packaging is allowed, even under weak self-regulation, providing an unfettered marketing tool for food advertisers to target children,” Ms Martin said.

“We want food manufacturers to stop using animations to promote junk food in any way to kids and for the Federal Government to extend and strengthen existing junk food marketing regulations.

“Peak health bodies, such as the World Health Organization, recognise that restricting junk food marketing to children is a vital step in improving children’s diets and slowing our serious obesity problem. Urgent action is required to protect our children from the plethora of junk food promotion that surrounds them.”

One company which uses cartoon characters in its marketing, Kelloggs, is resisting the call for change.

“Beloved Kellogg characters like Coco the Monkey, Sam Toucan and Tony the Tiger have been around for many years and are part of our heritage. Tony is the eldest and will be turning 67 this year. To get rid of them would be akin to asking Qantas to get rid of the Flying Kangaroo,” a Kellogg spokesperson said.

“The OPC is effectively saying to parents that they have less influence on their kids than a picture of a tiger or a monkey on a box of cereal, which is hugely discrediting to what parents decide to choose or don’t choose for their kids.”

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