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'The fundamental point is, is it appropriate?’ Advertising Association’s Ian Barber on food brands using internet to target children

When it comes to food and drink brands targeting their marketing efforts at children via social media and other online platforms, there are "lots of nuances", the Advertising Association’s director of communication, Ian Barber, has said.

Speaking on Channel 4’s Dispatches: Tricks of the Junk Food Business, Barber, when asked about his stance regarding brands engaging with children on Facebook, said: “It’s not easy but if they don’t get it right, if they are over aggressive with their marketing, the parents will punish them for it – stop buying their products and services.

“The fundamental point is, is it appropriate? Is the way their brand is talking to a child appropriate? And there are lots of nuances around that but it’s absolutely at the top of the advertising agenda”.

The programme, which aired last night, investigated the way in which brands and marketing agencies engage with children though online advertising and social media – a medium that is subject to less stringent regulations than television – and the link with obesity.

Once such way is through ‘advergames’, online games or apps that have been created by food and drink giants such as Coca-Cola and Oreo to promote their brands.

The Channel 4 programme questioned 28 school children who had played one such game created by McDonalds, and found that only seven noticed that the game was created by the fast food chain. In a statement to the programme McDonalds said: “The app was designed by Coca-Cola for teenagers aged 13 or older. McDonalds have strict marketing principles in relation to children and there were no McDonalds products visible.”

Speaking about advergames Barber added that it is “absolutely the case” they are less easily identifiable as an advert than ones that “interrupt the programme you’ve just been watching for the last half an hour”.

Tricks of the Junk Food Business also sent journalists under cover as the creators of a sugary drink aimed at children to speak with two digital marketing agencies about how to promote the product online.

Both agencies – Sun Chaser, which has worked with Burger King and Doritos, and Koko Digital – spoke about the merits of using advergames to engage children, with Koko Digital co-founder Stu Howarth suggesting that "subliminally" getting the branding in would be a good marketing strategy.

Sun Chaser and Koko Digital both issued statements in response to the undercover filming, with Sun Chaser admitting that what it communicated in the meeting did not meet its usual "high ethical standards" and the agency has since reviewed the manner in which it communicates with prospective clients.

Koko Digital meanwhile defended its position, responding: "Our games are always clearly identifiable as branded content. The footage represents only a snippet of what was a preliminary meeting. We continue to deliver fun and enagaeing content that sticks within all advertising regulations across the many types of industry sectors that we work within".

In a statement on the Advertising Association website, the body said that it had worked with the producers of the programme to ensure that they had a “balanced view” of the evidence regarding advertising and obesity.

The Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) denied that there was any evidence that advertising plays a role in childhood obesity and issued a statement through its director general, Paul Bainsfair, who commented: "Ultimately, advertising is an easy target. It has a role to play in this debate, but there is no evidence to-date to suggest that advertising is a significant factor in childhood obesity”.

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