Advertising to children: the responsibility of food manufacturers

Summary

The very idea of ensuring healthy nutrition for the future starts with children, not only with the products designed for them, but also with the communication tools that companies use to target them. The Danone group is well aware of its own impact on this very special group of consumers, and of its responsibility towards them. Internally, and externally along with other corporations, Danone has thus developed a wide range of guidelines that apply to TV, print, web and in-school communication. The aim is to promote healthy eating habits, and to refrain from advertising products that do not meet children’s needs. The stakes are high, as non-communicable diseases are spreading and creating a real public health issue in the developed world.

20Nov.
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Danone manufactures and sells dairy products, which make up a large proportion of a young child’s diet. Consequently, the company has a major impact on the nutrition of the youngest members of society and has a responsibility to encourage healthy diets and behaviour. Back in 2007, Danone thus decided to officially commit to communicating more responsibly towards children, in the media (TV, print and web) and near and inside schools. This corporate stance was soon supported by a “pledge approach”: the Group has co-founded and joined pledges that bring together food manufacturers and define common criteria and goals to address the issue of marketing and advertising towards children. Two days ago, the EU Pledge issued a “Nutrition Criteria White Paper” presenting the nutritional criteria members have defined together. To coincide with this, we wish to explain how this event fits into the global self-discipline approach that Danone has been developing over the past few years.

From a corporate stance to shared pledges

In 2007, Danone officially announced that the group would stop advertising those of its products that do not meet nutritional needs for the age group and that are not appropriately portioned to children between 3 and 12. Concretely, this means that these products will not appear on TV channels and radio stations where at least 50% of viewers or listeners are children, nor on websites that specifically target children under 12. Danone also undertook not to use “licensed” characters from movies, books or TV shows. Finally, it pledged not to advertise near schools, to communicate on nutrition only if requested by school personnel and to use an educational approach when doing so. The group issued a range of precise guidelines on this last subject, to ensure that its activities inside schools could not be mistaken for advertising.

In December 2007 Danone, along with 10 other signatories, issued the EU Pledge, entitled

We will change our food advertising to children.

This voluntary initiative was launched by “leading food and beverage companies to change food and beverage advertising on TV, print and Internet to children under the age of twelve in the European Union.” Signatories committed to the same sort of rules that Danone had defined internally: no advertising to children under 12, “except for products which fulfil specific nutrition criteria based on accepted scientific evidence and/or applicable national and international dietary guidelines”, and no communication related to products in schools, “except where specifically requested by, or agreed with, the school administration for educational purposes”, as stated in the 2011 Report of the EU Pledge. Each member then has the latitude to adopt other criteria, provided that they are more stringent than those in the Pledge. Two days ago, the 19 members of the EU Pledge (who account for over 80% of food and beverage advertising spend in the EU), went a step further by issuing a “Nutrition Criteria White Paper” detailing the nutritional prerequisites for products to be allowed to be advertised to young consumers: the idea is no longer “just” to determine when to advertise, but what to advertise as well. The “pledge approach” has also been adopted by Danone in the United States (since 2006, with the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative), and a Canadian Pledge is currently being prepared.

Ensuring credibility in the fight against obesity

As Agnès Martin, Global Nutrition & Health Director at Danone, explains, committing to a common pledge gives a company’s self-discipline approach more credibility. As a matter of fact, common criteria are often more comprehensive than individual goals, and there is an immediate sense of objectivity attached to them. To define their guidelines, the pledges rely on expert opinions and advice; and third-party studies are carried out every year to ensure the signatories comply with commitments. EU Pledge members are audited by Accenture Media Management and BDRC Continental, for instance. Since these initiatives have been in place, six years for the US Pledge, and five years for the EU Pledge, audits have consistently shown very high compliance rates. This legitimacy is crucial to the companies, which want to prove that they take the issues of obesity and overweight – and their own impacts on them – very seriously. As a matter of fact, the European example demonstrates effectively how private actors are taking more and more action on public health issues, partnering with the public sector. The recent improvements made by the EU Pledge in fact responded “to most of the suggestions for enhanced commitments reflected in the European Commission’s 2010 Implementation progress report on the EU Strategy on Obesity, overweight and related health conditions”, states the 2011 Report. In the United States, the Children’s Food and Beverage Advertising Initiative was initially launched by the Council of Better Business Bureau,

an unbiased non-profit organisation that sets and upholds high standards for fair and honest business behaviour,

to address the national challenge of childhood obesity. At national levels, in the countries where Danone is present, a string of rules must also be complied with, and firms work to anticipate and reinforce these.

At a time when non-communicable diseases (obesity, diabetes, etc.) are spreading in developed countries – and primarily among the poorest in these countries – health has become a crucial challenge again. Almost everyone has their share of food now, but it does not always ensure good nutrition. This a public health issue for us and for generations to come. In most countries, national programs have been developed to encourage healthy lifestyles and eating habits and point out “nutrients to limit”. But corporate actors, as the main providers of food, also need to take responsibility themselves, both in the composition of their products and in the way they advertise them. Children are not just another advertising target, as they can easily be influenced. But they are the adults and parents of tomorrow, and as such should benefit from the best nutritional education. That is where the fight against non-communicable diseases starts.

(Photo from http://www.danonecommunities.com/)