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It’s a Knockout! ACMA report delivers blow to self-regulation

Jane Martin, senior policy advisor for the Obesity Policy Coalition, writes:

Yesterday a very carefully worded report by the media watchdog on the effectiveness of industry self-regulation of junk food advertising to children was released. Such purposefully bland statements always require further investigation.

In its report, the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) found it is “unclear” whether the new self-regulation initiatives (the RCMI and QSR initiatives) have acted to reduce children’s exposure to junk food advertising on free to air TV.

That is because there is no evidence this is the case – unless you take the word of the industry’s own lobby group, the Australian Food and Grocery Council.

There was an audible sigh of relief from industry and their media partners yesterday as ACMA washed its hands of the issue (acknowledging “there is [sic] continuing concerns around food and beverage advertising to children”), and passed the baton to the Australian National Preventative Health Agency for further monitoring and review.

Which begs the question: what is it that ACMA was actually meant to do, if not monitor the issue? Of course, this delay plays straight into the hands of multinational junk food companies and it’s back to business as usual…

Just taking a step back in time, it is important to remember these industry codes were developed in 2009 with encouragement from Government. This push was a result of the Preventative Health Taskforce recommendation to phase out unhealthy food marketing on television before 9pm within four years. Their preferred approach was to start with self-regulation and to move beyond this to stronger controls if this did not reduce children’s exposure to this marketing.

For those of us who are watching these things, at least two years have already elapsed and nothing seems to have changed. Even more worrying, the very elements that appear to be addressed by this self-regulation are actually not controlled to any significant degree; the loopholes in the codes are bigger than the safety net they are meant to provide.

All the surveys support the view of ACMA, which is there is strong community concern, however this is yet to be addressed.  Surely the lack of progress is the trigger for government to step in and develop an effective regulatory system.

While the government commissions reviews and passes the issue from agency to agency, it is losing pace with junk food advertisers who are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their methods of targeting children.

You just need to look at current ratings hit It’s a Knockout to illustrate the point. Here’s a show that is one of the top rating programs for children under 12 and includes relentless branding and promotion for McDonald’s throughout. Last week we had Ronald, the Hamburgler and Grimace out on the field and sitting with children in the audience.

It’s a Knockout is a sign of how comfortable the industry is (and assured that it won’t be penalised for breaking its own codes) with the current system of self-regulation. It’s brazen indeed that despite rising community concern about marketing junk food to children, a fast food restaurant is able to produce Australia’s first prime-time advertiser-funded TV program.

Now that McDonald’s has gotten away it, watch out for other co-sponsored programs on your TV.

If there was ever a time that government agencies needed to stop passing the buck and start taking action to protect children from junk food advertising, it’s now – when advertisers are not only found in the ad breaks, but all over the content as well.

• This article was first published in the Crikey bulletin