Is it responsible to use cartoon characters to target advertisement of unhealthy foods at children?

We’re all very familiar with the likes of the Milky Bar Kid and Tony the Tiger, the characters who have been promoting some of the most popular chocolate and cereal products for years. Recently, these guys have had some pretty bad press.

It is well established that marketing has a huge influence on food choice. Evidence shows that children are particularly vulnerable to marketing strategies as they ‘lack an adult’s understanding of advertising intent.’ Additionally, children have a biological preference for sweet and salty foods which further increases their vulnerability to marketing of these types of foods.

In the UK in 2006, a ban was placed on advertisement of foods high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS) during children’s airtime and around programmes with a disproportionately high child audience. Due to this, on average children saw around 37% less HFSS advertising. One marketing strategy which is very commonly used to promote HFSS food products is the use of characters and cartoons as these appeal to children greatly. The use of licensed characters (i.e. those created by a movie studio), such as Spiderman, and celebrities popular with children are not allowed to be used in TV advertisement of HFSS products. However, there is no restriction on the use of unlicensed characters (i.e. those created by the food industry) such as Tony the Tiger and the Milky Bar Kid. These are often designed to specifically appeal to children.

Liscensed: Unlicensed:

The Minions (Despicable Me)

Elsa (Frozen)

Peppa Pig

Milky Bar Kid

Pom Bear

Tony the Tiger

Coco the Monkey (Cocopops)

It is currently estimated that one in three children aged 2-15 in the UK are overweight or obese. This brings an array of problems for these children including an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease as well as psychological problems such as anxiety and depression. It has been estimated that each year overweight and obesity related ill-health cost the government more than the police, fire service and judicial system combined.

The government’s childhood obesity plan published in August 2016 underwhelmed many childhood obesity campaigners, and it has been criticised by many for being inadequate. One particular criticism was the lack of recognition how marketing of HFSS foods to children contributes to the increasing prevalence of obesity. A report recently published by the UK Health Committee states that regulation of both licensed and unlicensed characters on broadcast and non-broadcast media needs to be tightened. The report argues that the next government plan to tackle childhood obesity should extend regulation of the use of characters beyond broadcast media to include all non-broadcast media, HFSS product packaging and in-store promotions.

Jamie Oliver recently set up the campaign #AdEnough. The campaign is focused on reducing children’s exposure to junk food advertisements in order to enable them to make better food decisions. You can read more by following the link above.

In summary, children today are bombarded with targeted advertisement of HFSS food products and see very little fruit and vegetable advertisements. It has been proven that this has a significant impact on children’s food preferences and requests. Advertisements within supermarkets in particular are associated with ‘pester-power’. It is arguable that more can be done in the way of government regulation to minimise this. It is possible that in the future the likes of Tony the Tiger and the Milky Bar Kid could become job-less.

Hannah is a Final Year Nutrition student at the University of Nottingham, who aspires to go on a study a Masters in Dietetics. Her interests include nutrition education and maternal and child health. Follow her on Twitter at @hlj_jones