Online ‘advergames’ link to child obesity studied

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Advertising of food and drink to children online is not regulated as much as it is on TV
Advertising of food and drink to children online is not regulated as much as it is on TV

Related tags Nutrition

The debate about childhood obesity will intensify tomorrow (February 5) when a comprehensive review of digital and online food and drink marketing to children is published.

The literature survey was commissioned last year by the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA’s) Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP). It was the work of leading independent youth researcher Dr Barbie Clarke​, formerly director of family research at market research firm GfK NOP.

It is designed to ensure that the regulation of food and soft drink advertising continues to be effective and proportionate.

The review comes as the voluntary industry Public Health Responsibility Deal Food and Drink Network acknowledged failure to agree on the promotion​ of food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) to children. That has led to arguments that tougher regulation is necessary.

The study recognises we now live in a multi-media world in which we have instant access to information and entertainment via a range of devices, including smart phones, tablets and laptops.

‘Concerns about online advertising’

“We need to stay up to date … people continue to have reasonableconcerns about online advertising,”​ said ASA ceo Guy Parker at a seminar on tackling obesity organised by the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum in London yesterday (February 3).

“I believe that the answer to this question is probably enforcing stricter evidence-based rules and helping children to be critically reflective so that they can make informed choices.”

The ASA is concerned about how it responds to concerns that children are being targeted with online ads for less healthy food and drink products, which aren’t regulated in the same way as TV ads.

Lobby groups, such as the Children’s Food Campaign, have long called for tighter restrictions on advertising to children, and specifically a 9pm watershed to be imposed on TV ads aimed at them. However, online advertising through so-called ‘advergames’ is emerging as an equally potent medium through which advertisers are getting their messages across.


Advergames are typically electronic games used to advertise a product, brand or an organisation. Their use by food companies is already regulated by strict rules and the ASA has in the past banned those games that promoted overeating.

CAP published guidance on advergames​ in 2012, which makes clear that ads should be obviously identifiable as such and that they should be prepared responsibly.  

The ASA has argued that the rules governing advertising to children are already strict and have long prohibited any ad from encouraging poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children​But it has accepted that there are potential gaps in knowledge regarding online advertising.

Both the broadcast and non-broadcast Advertising Codes were significantly tightened in 2007. This followed the publication of a Department of Health ‘Choosing Health’​ White Paper which included a call to strengthen advertising food rules to children, particularly on TV, in a package of measures aimed at reducing obesity and improving diet and nutrition.  

Although both Codes are closely aligned, the rules differ slightly. While the Broadcast Code categorises some foods as HFSS for TV, it doesn’t do so for radio and nor does the Non-broadcast Code for non-broadcast media.

The complexity of the debate is perhaps best demonstrated by the key findings from the work of media education expert Professor David Buckingham​, The Impact of the Commercial World on Children’s Wellbeing,​ published in 2009.

‘Expert opinion is divided’

“Expert opinion is divided on this issue. Most experts agree that advertising does have some impact, but the evidence is that the impact is very small,” ​Buckingham’s report stated. “​[Also], food choice is only one factor in obesity; and other factors – such as the availability and price of food, the influence of parents, patterns of physical activity, and the lack of access to outdoor play areas – play a much greater role.” 

It also stated: “… we found a surprisingly small amount of reliable evidence relating specifically to television advertising and to obesity.”

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