Food and drink firms are using so called ‘advergames’ and social media to get around laws governing advertising to children, a Channel 4 Dispatches documentary has claimed.
The UK program, Tricks of the Junk Food Business , accused big names like Kellogg, Coca-Cola and Cloetta (the firm behind the sweet brand Chewits) of taking advantage of a legal grey zone to plug “junk food” products to children. Currently UK law edicts that food and drink ads targeted at children should not: Condone unhealthy diets; include promotional offers; use exploitative techniques; include licensed characters (e.g. cartoon characters) or encourage pester power.
This does not apply to fresh fruit and vegetables. The UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) extended its guidelines to include online mediums like social media and websites two years ago.
Responding to the accusations, Cloetta said the sugar confectionery segment was the most honest food on the shelf in that it was not claiming to be anything other than a treat. It added that it thought it and its sweet brand Chewits had been unfairly categorised as ‘junk food’, and said it did not see its online game as advertising.
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola said gaming apps across all its brands were specifically developed for and targeted towards teens and young adults, and said it was committed to responsible marketing.
Kellogg said the broadcaster’s investigation - whereby a fake Facebook alias for an 11-year-old girl contacted the firms - had “nothing to do with reality”. It sent FoodNavigator screen shots showing its chocolate cereal brand Krave’s responses to the bogus account – apologising to the undercover ‘youth’ that they would be blocked since the social media page was for over 17s only. Facebook has an official minimum age limit of 13, although this can easily be avoided by imputing a false age.
All three companies said their activity was in line with ASA guidelines.
“We do not recognise the word ‘advergame’”
Stuart Lane, commercial director at Cloetta, said: “We do not recognise the word 'advergame' and have never seen a formal definition of such a word, however, given previous ASA rulings, we do not believe that any games on the Chewits website actively encourage consumption of Chewits.”
He said there was no reward for completing the game, and online material was designed to engage consumers, not directly encourage consumption.
Lobbyists like the Children’s Food Campaign have called for tighter controls on social media marketing , claiming that two years after ASA extended laws to include the online channels, the body was still failing to protect children.
A Coca-Cola spokesperson defended its game ‘Crabs and Penguins’ featuring a McDonald’s store, saying it was developed to engage those over the age of 13, with this age limit being advised upon download. This age rating was based on iTunes and Google Play content assessments, not its own policy, it said.
Kellogg said: “This has got nothing to do with reality, as Dispatches created an adult profile to pose as a 11 year old girl. The fact is, Krave doesn’t interact with anyone under the age of 17 on Facebook and we have a tried and tested age gating method in place to prevent that happening.“
On the brand's Facebook page, the 'Anna' character wrote: “Hey Krave my Mum won’t let me have as much Krave as I like! What should I do!?”
Kellogg said as soon as it noticed the age mentioned in another post - before Dispatches notified them about the investigation - it had blocked ‘Anna’ from its page, sent a note of explanation and reported it to Facebook for 'Anna's' own protection. “We hope people will agree with us, that these are the actions of a responsible company,” it said.
Cloetta said its response to a question about new flavours was factual and informative, however it said given ‘Anna’ stated it was her 11th birthday, it has reviewed its communication policy to ensure that it doesn’t interact on Facebook with any child it we believes to be under 13.
Who are you calling junk food?
Speaking after the broadcast on Monday, Cloetta said its confectionery brand had been nutritionally misrepresented by the program. It said it considered a typical portion size to be between one to five sweets, and consumer would have to eat around 33 sweets to get the 53g of sugar given in Dispatches’ per 100g portion example.
"Cloetta does not believe that Chewits should be classified as 'junk food' and
that the Dispatches programme failed to explain their criteria for using this label at any time”.
“Based on a portion size of between 3 to 5 sweets, meaning less than 10 g of sugar per portion, Cloetta does not believe that Chewits should be classified as 'junk food' and that the Dispatches programme failed to explain their criteria for using this label at any time,” it said.
“We believe that the sugar confectionery category and our brands within it are the 'most honest' category in store. Everyone knows that our products contain sugar, whilst if you buy cereals or yoghurts or numerous other products you can often be unaware of the high sugar content,” it said.
Coca-Cola said it was committed to responsible marketing. “At the heart of our long standing global policy on advertising to children, we believe that parents should be able to choose the drinks that they believe are right for their own families and their needs - and therefore our global set practice is to not market to under 12s."