Food industry failing to self-regulate junk food ads to kids

15 February 2017 | Wendy Watson

Boy watching TV eating junk food

A new study released by Cancer Council NSW today has found no reduction in unhealthy food and drink advertisements on television during children’s peak viewing times, despite the fact that the food industry introduced voluntary self-regulatory initiatives in 2009.

We found that children are being exposed to an average of three unhealthy food advertisements every hour that they watch TV during peak periods. This figure remains unchanged since Cancer Council NSW and University of Sydney conducted the same analysis in 2011.

The study published in the Journal of Public Health analysed advertisements broadcast during peak children’s viewing times on the three major free-to-air commercial television channels in Sydney, over a four day period in 2015.1


Key findings of the study

  • 44 per cent of food advertisements were for unhealthy foods
  • 1 in 5 (21 per cent) ads were for fast food
  • Besides fast food ads (1.3/hr), other frequently advertised categories were chocolate and confectionary (0.7/hr) and sugary drinks (0.4/hr).



Infographickids watching junk food advertising on TV


Why do these findings matter?

Junk food marketing influences what foods kids like, what they pester parents for and what they actually eat.

Junk food marketing is a key contributor to the problem of childhood obesity, which we know is likely to lead to adult obesity and increase a person’s risk of cancer and other diseases later in life.

In 2009 The Australian Food and Grocery Council introduced two self-regulatory initiatives to reduce advertising and marketing to children for unhealthy food and beverage products. For almost eight years now junk food companies have been taking advantage of these weak, self-defined codes because there has been nothing to stop them from doing so. We will continue to see no change in the rate of unhealthy food advertising to children unless government takes action.


Why self-regulation of the food and beverage industry is not working?

The food industry’s self-regulatory initiatives are full of loopholes. For example, self-regulation defines ‘advertising to children’ as when an audience is comprised of at least 35 per cent children. During our study, we observed that in Sydney alone there were 40,000 children watching the rugby league and 30,000 watching a popular cooking show, but they only made up about 10 per cent of the audience, so a junk food ad in those shows would still technically comply.

If the objective of voluntary self-regulation initiatives is to reduce children’s exposure to advertisements that are not healthier choices then the definition of children’s viewing periods needs to incorporate times when high numbers of children are viewing, irrespective of the ratio to total audience numbers.

In our study, McDonald’s dominated the fast food category accounting for 47 per cent of fast food advertisements, followed by KFC (26 per cent) and Hungry Jack’s (16 per cent). But the fact that each of these fast food brands have actually been signed up to the voluntary self-regulatory initiatives since 2009 is cause for concern. 


What do we want to see?

Reducing exposure of children to unhealthy food marketing is part of a comprehensive package of recommendations to address childhood obesity from the World Health Organization.

Cancer Council NSW is calling on government to take long-awaited action to regulate to protect children from the impact and influence of junk food advertising, so that they can take a healthier path into adult life.

1. Peak times were defined as 06.00 to 09.00 and 16.00 to 21.00 on weekdays and 06.00 to 12.00 and 16.00 to 21.00 on weekends.


Wendy Watson is the lead author of the study and Nutrition Programs Manager at Cancer Council NSW.
Download the full research article Advertising to children initiatives have not reduced unhealthy food advertising on Australian television.

Read more about junk food marketing to children in Australia

The facts on food and drink sponsorship in sports

Fast food: exposing the truth

Children’s Health or Corporate Wealth? The battleground for kids’ hearts, minds and tummies

Find out how you can get involved in fighting junk food marketing to our kids.


More about the study

  • Advertising to children initiatives have not reduced unhealthy food advertising on Australian television was published in Journal of Public Health, February 2017.
  • In response to rising childhood obesity rates, the Australian food industry implemented two initiatives in 2009 to reduce the marketing of unhealthy food to children – the Responsible Children’s Marketing Initiative (RCMI) for food and beverage grocery manufacturers and the Quick Service Restaurant Initiative (QSRI) for fast-food companies.
  • These initiatives have defined children’s viewing periods as either within C- and P- programs or when children are at least 35 per cent of the audience.
  • This study evaluated the efficacy of these initiatives on the rate of unhealthy food advertising to children on Australian television.
  • Cancer Council NSW’s study looked beyond the food industry defined parameters, analysing advertisements that aired during children’s peak viewing times. Peak viewing times were defined as 06.00 to 09.00 and 16.00 to 21.00 on weekdays and 06.00 to 12.00 and 16.00 to 21.00 on weekends.
  • The rates of food advertisements on three free-to-air commercial television channels in Sydney, Australia (7, 9, 10) were analysed over 2 weekdays (16 h) and two weekend days (22 h). An additional youth-oriented digital channel was also analysed. Advertisements were categorised according to the healthiness of foods advertised (non-core or ‘unhealthy’, core or ‘healthy’, and miscellaneous) and by signatory status to the food industry advertising initiatives.