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Media Release

Food marketing codes fail to protect children from junk food ads

October 15, 2021

New research from Cancer Council has found that food companies are exploiting loopholes in their marketing codes to push their products to children, with only 12% of complaints made about junk food marketing to children upheld.

The Australian-first study looked at six years’ worth of complaints made about junk food being marketed to children and found the food industry codes fail to protect children. Loopholes are being exploited by food marketers and complaints made by concerned parents and the community are being ignored. 

McDonald’s, KFC, Cadbury, and Kellogg’s were amongst the food brands that were the subject of complaints, many of them running ads that clearly appeal to children. Yet very few complaints were upheld due to flaws in the industry-designed codes. 

Clare Hughes, Cancer Council’s Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee Chair says, “The system is failing to protect our children from junk food marketing. Children’s exposure to high levels of unhealthy food marketing affects the food and drinks that they like, ask for, buy, and consume. 

“There’s no denying that the ads we looked at were clearly targeting children, yet campaigns for products like Happy Meals, LCMs bars, KFC chicken and Cadbury Oreo bars are slipping through gaping loopholes in the current industry codes and reaching our children every day on buses, TV and online.”

The industry codes are not set up to protect children from exposure to unhealthy advertising. The most common loophole being exploited by food companies is the term ‘primarily directed to children’ as often advertisers claim that rather than being directed to children the ad was equally of appeal to parents. An example of this was a McDonald’s Happy Meal ad promoting Peter Rabbit toys. The complaint was dismissed because that theme was found to be appealing to children and to parents who would like to buy a treat for their children.

The research found several other loopholes being exploited, including: 

  • The codes mostly define children as under 14 years, whereas best practice defines children as someone under the age of 18
  • Alongside the unhealthy food, ads feature people exercising and sharing food as the current codes say they should encourage physical activity and good dietary habits (including not promoting excessive consumption)
  • Despite its name, not one complaint was upheld against the AANA Children’s Advertising Code

In light of the findings, Cancer Council is calling for mandatory independent government regulation of food marketing to children. 

Ms Hughes said, “The Government’s draft National Obesity Prevention Strategy is now out for consultation. It includes an action to reduce exposure to unhealthy food and drink marketing, promotion and sponsorship We know that the industry designed codes aren’t working, so we’re pleased to see that food marketing to children is in the strategy, although to be truly effective it must protect children from exposure, not merely reduce exposure. The focus should now be on making sure this is high on the Government’s priorities to action to stop companies exploiting these loopholes, and ultimately exploiting our children.”

“The community can help too. If you see an ad you’re concerned about, we want to hear from you. Visit our Our Kids Our Call campaign website to tell us about an ad you’ve seen or raise your concerns,” Ms Hughes concludes. 

Media Enquiries
Please contact Amie Johnson in the Cancer Council Australia media team on (02) 8256 4109 or email [email protected]
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