Australia: Australian approach to advertising to children receives approval

Last Updated: 2 March 2013
Article by Ian Robertson and Sarah Butler
Most Read Contributor in Australia, September 2016

"Against [a] backdrop of grave public concern, pressure has been mounting around the globe on food and beverage manufacturers and advertisers to responsibly address their influence on children when promoting products that are energy dense and nutrient-poor..." 1

APEC heralds Australian Advertising Standard Bureau's initiatives as a success

Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) discussions which took place in Hanoi in November 2012 focused in part on the recent independently published Responsible Advertising to children: an independent review of the Australian food and beverage industry self-regulatory codes ( Report). In these discussions, a consensus was reached that the Australian Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB) continues to promote best-practice initiatives and principles of advertising self-regulation both internationally and within Australia.

Given that Australian advertising is now being considered the benchmark of international best practice, particularly in relation to advertising to children, combined with the national pressure that has been mounting since the link between childhood obesity and advertising to children was made, it is hardly surprising that the ASB wishes to continue the development of the focus of the Report - the Responsible Children's Marketing Initiative (RCMI) and the Quick Services Restaurant Industry Initiative (QSRI), both of which have developed a set of codes (Codes). It is important that media organisations, including advertising agencies, are informed of the current regulations and controls over advertising to children in Australia.

The Australian model of advertising to children: current regulations

Australia currently has in place a set of regulatory and self-regulatory arrangements governing the promotion of food and beverages to children in Australia, involving restrictions placed on broadcasting licenses, the advertising industry and food and beverage manufacturers. This includes:

  1. section 122 of the Broadcasting Services Act 1992, administered and enforced by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), which incorporates the Children's Television Standards 2009;
  2. the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice, that is enforced by the ACMA;
  3. subscription broadcasting licences are regulated by the ACMA and must abide by the Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association (ASTRA) Codes of Practice; and
  4. the self-regulatory AANA Code for Marketing and Advertising to Children and the AANA Food and Beverages: Advertising and Marketing Communications Code.

The Report provides a helpful summary of these arrangements, but its focus is on the self-regulatory RCMI and QSRI, and their respective sets of Codes. The RCMI was established by the Australian Food and Beverage Industry and the QSRI by the Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) in response to mounting concerns about the level of advertising to children of foods high in energy, fat, sugar and salt.

The Codes apply to all advertisements on television, radio, newspapers and magazines, cinema, third-party websites, interactive games, online marketing and communications, and impose a positive obligation on advertising to promote and encourage healthy dietary choices. The RCMI stipulates in its core principles that:

"Participants will not advertise food and beverage products to children under 12 in media unless:

  1. those products represent healthy dietary choices, consistent with established scientific or Australian government standards; and
  2. the advertising and/or marketing communication activities reference, or are in the context of a healthy lifestyle, designed to appeal to the intended audience through messaging that encourages:
    • good dietary habits, consistent with established scientific or government criteria; and
    • physical activity."

The QSRI code replicates these principles in section 3.1.

Practical Implications of the Report

The Report provides a review of whether the RCMI and QSRI have the attributes of well-run and effective self-regulatory codes. The findings and recommendations of the Report will have wide-ranging implications for signatories to the Codes, and also to manufacturers, brands and advertising agencies. Some of the recommendations that are made in the Report are discussed below.

Enforced Ratification of the Codes

One of the most potent issues reported by signatories was a general frustration that the credibility of the Codes are compromised, either by the intermittently disingenuous behaviours of some peer signatories, or by advertising behaviour of non-signatories that would breach the Codes. The wider the membership a code has in an industry, the more effective it will be.

In relation to this concern, the Report makes the recommendation that the AFGC should develop a recruitment strategy, and explore the implications of making code ratification a requirement of peak body membership. If this recommendation is followed up by the AFGC, it will have a significant impact for non-signatory manufacturers, brands and advertising agencies.

Practically, these additional requirements in advertising to children would require aspects such as additional training for staff members on the Codes, changes in marketing strategies and cost expenditure on aspects such as product development, and reformulation of marketing strategies.

Enhanced Restrictions and Incentives for Compliance

There are suggestions made throughout the Report of the ways in which the Codes should be enhanced, and thus restrictions also increased. As these increases occur, there may be a role for government incentive for compliance. Such incentives would include a contribution to research and development associated with meeting the agreed targets for reducing fat, salt and sugar in the Australian food supply, or reductions in the tax deductibility of advertising.

Non-signatory companies should consider the possible benefits that may come with such monetary incentives, and how a strong partnership between government and industry would be beneficial to their company.

Increased Sanctions for non-compliance

It is also suggested that sanctions need to be commercially significant and commensurate with the rigour of code obligations in order to ensure a meaningful incentive to comply. Where there are weak or non-existent sanctions, these are often held up as a weakness of self-regulation. 2 rently, sanctions involve either amendment to rectify the problem with the advertisement or total removal of the promotion. If further sanctions are implemented, these would likely be expulsion from the codes, expulsion from the industry peak body or fines.

An increase in sanctions will have the effect of deterring food and beverage companies from finding "loopholes" in the Codes. It will make it more important for companies to asses the risk of breach versus the commercial benefits to be gained from breaching the Codes.

The future directions for advertising to children

Generally, the Report found a "unanimous, emphatic and enduring commitment to ratification of these Australian Codes that limit the marketing activity and opportunity." 3 Where issues were raised, they stemmed from a desire to make the Codes under the RCMI and QSRI more credible and widespread.

The way in which food and beverage is advertised to children is an integral issue for manufacturers, brands and advertising agencies. The landscape of advertising to children and is complex and ever-evolving. A reading of the Report confirms that this area of law has gained momentum and shows no sign of slowing down. As such, it is important for advertising agencies to remain well-informed of their obligations in relation to the regulations and controls governing advertising to children.

Relevant Links

The 2012 Independent Review of the RCMI by Susannah Tymms

The ACCC Guidelines for developing a self regulatory code of conduct

The AFGC's response to the 2012 Independent Review of the RCMI


1 Susannah Tymms (2012) Responsible advertising to children: an independent review of the Australian food and beverage self-regulatory codes. Canberra, p13.

2 Susannah Tymms (2012) Responsible advertising to children: an independent review of the Australian food and beverage self-regulatory codes. Canberra, p61.

3 Susannah Tymms (2012) Responsible advertising to children: an independent review of the Australian food and beverage self-regulatory codes. Canberra, p65.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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Ian Robertson
Sarah Butler
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