Following the release of several global monitoring reports on the food industry’s voluntary commitment to reduce the marketing of high fat, salt and sugar products to children under 12, the merits of a self-regulatory approach to food advertising has been the topic of much discussion in Asia.

FIA spoke to Will Gilroy Director of Communications at the World Federation of Advertisers (WFA) and Glen Wiggs, Director at the Foundation for Advertising Research (FfAR) to understand more about the potential benefits of this approach in Asia.

Why is self-regulation the right approach in helping to shift the nature and balance of food advertising to children?
Leading food companies in Asia, and around the world, are committed to promoting healthy, balanced lifestyles and are driving self-regulatory measures to reduce the impact of marketing of foods high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, sugars or salt on children. These measures also aim to provide consumers with choices and transparent, fact-based information that empower them to make decisions for a healthy life. This form of effective self-regulation has been welcomed by Governments in several Asian countries who are working with the industry to scale up these initiatives.

Wiggs: Regulating advertising is a hugely complex issue, with a number of scientific challenges. For example, how do you define which products cannot be advertised to children when different foods are consumed in such varying quantities and styles and have such different roles in a person's diet? Is it appropriate to demonise branded ingredients simply because they are more visibly promoted, or should we be focusing on educating young people about the consumption of all foods?

Self-regulatory approaches such as marketing to children pledges focus on the types of products advertised to children and promote healthy lifestyles at national level, helping to ensure that marketing directed at children is promoting “better for you” products.

How do we know a self-regulatory approach is effective?
Independent monitoring of these commitments shows that they are making a tangible and sizeable difference to the type of advertising that children under 12 are exposed to.

Earlier this year, the effectiveness of these self-regulatory systems was highlighted by the EU Health and Consumers Commissioner Tonio Borg who commented on monitoring results of the EU Marketing to Children Pledge. He highlighted that the effectiveness of this Pledge is “made evident” by the 2012 monitoring report which showed a downward trend in children's exposure to food advertising.

A recent review of such initiatives in Australia found they have resulted in ‘significant changes’ to the way food and beverage products are marketing to children. The review highlighted that that 74 per cent of signatories of the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative (RCMI) and the Australian Quick Service Restaurant Industry Initiative for Responsible Advertising and Marketing to Children (QSR initiative), have voluntarily exceeded the high standards these codes set.

Late last month, Advertising Standards Canada (ASC) also released its fifth annual Compliance Report on the Canadian Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative (CAI). This report confirms the continuing high level of compliance by companies participating in the CAI in meeting their programme commitments.

These are all good examples of the effectiveness of self-regulation as well as the commitment these companies have to reporting transparently about their compliance.

Wiggs: The industry is completely transparent about their self-regulatory commitments through regular monitoring and reports. As such, they are putting themselves under the spotlight with regulators, the public and other stakeholders, all of whom are closely watching their compliance to the commitments they have made. Because of this transparency, maintaining these commitments is critical for their corporate reputation and therefore the way these industry-led self-regulatory measures have been designed ensures that all signatories are focused on full compliance, at all times.

The industry’s commitment to these self regulatory pledges was highlighted in the 2012 Compliance Monitoring Report on Global Advertising of Food and Non-Alcoholic Beverages in Child-directed Media. This independent report assessed the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA) members’ compliance rates to the commitments of the Global Policy on Advertising and Marketing Communications to Children. It reviewed almost 450,000 television advertisements in seven markets – Shanghai, Malaysia, Thailand, Colombia, Russia, Saudi Arabia and South Africa – as well as 57 print publications and 87 websites targeted at children under 12 years of age in five markets – Shanghai, Singapore, Brazil, Russia and South Africa. It found that IFBA members achieved almost 100 per cent compliance across all media monitored, demonstrating the firm commitment by the industry to change the nature and balance of food advertising to children.

What self-regulatory measures have been put in place in Asia?
Self regulatory systems are constantly evolving in line with Government, community and consumer expectations and we have seen some significant developments here in Asia in the last few months alone.

Many countries have implemented self-regulatory measures to help shift the nature and balance of food advertising to children in recent months. Some of the more recent examples include Singapore and Malaysia both of which have recently adopted marketing to children pledges. These Pledges commit signatories to only advertising products that meet specific nutrition criteria to children under 12, or not advertise to children under 12 at all.

Wiggs: Country-specific Pledges that are tailored to their unique local environment, demonstrate a real commitment by food and beverage companies to change the way they advertise to children on TV, on the internet, and through a total ban on promotions in primary schools. These significant commitments make a substantial difference to the nature and balance of food and beverage advertising to children. It’s pleasing to see that governments are working hand in hand with industry associations to recognise these voluntary standards as a valuable tool in their national action plans to tackle non-communicable diseases.

FIA issues a fortnightly e-bulletin with analysis on relevant food and beverage industry issues across the region. To subscribe to this service, please click here.