Food and beverage groups adopt a voluntary code for advertising to kids

The coalition recognizes that children constitute a ‘special audience’ and care must be taken with advertising; watchdog organizations are skeptical
Little happy cute boy is eating donut on blue background wall.

A coalition of industry groups representing advertisers, food and beverage brands, manufacturers and restaurants have announced their commitment to a comprehensive Code and Guide governing the advertising of foods and beverages to children.

The coalition is comprised of the Association of Canadian Advertisers; the Canadian Beverage Association; Food, Health & Consumer Products of Canada; and Restaurants Canada. The Food and Beverage Advertising Code will govern all food and beverage advertising across the country, with the coalition saying it meets or exceeds the most recent Health Canada recommendations, published in December 2018.

The Code doesn’t replace any existing laws, regulations, guidelines or self-regulatory codes, but is intended to expand upon existing legislative, regulatory, and self-regulatory regimes, the coalition says. Member organizations have until summer 2023 to comply.

The Code recognizes that children constitute a “special audience,” and that care must be taken in developing advertising targeting those viewers. Particular care must be taken in developing advertising about the consumption and choice of food and beverages, it states.

It says advertising for a food or beverage product may not be primarily directed towards persons under the age of 13 unless the advertised product satisfies child advertising nutrition criteria pertaining to saturated fat, sodium or sugars.

When a food or beverage does not satisfy the stated nutrition criteria, the Code takes three factors into account to determine if it is being directed to those under 13: The nature and intended purpose of the product being advertised; the manner of presentation; and the time and place it is shown.

The Code states it pertains to “all advertising featuring a food or beverage product, directed to residents of Canada, in any media,” but there are also several exemptions, including packaging, labels, wrappers, containers and product shape.

Displays, in-store flyers, posters, menus, menu boards and other on-premise communications and material about a food or beverage product are also “expressly exempt,” as is “brand advertising and sponsorship advertising that do not feature a food and/or beverage product.”

There is also an exemption for any food and beverage product that does not meet the nutrition criteria “and promotes an educational or charitable initiative or cause, including those associated with children or families.”

The Code will be administered by the industry watchdog Advertising Standards Canada, which will put preclearance services as well as a compliance and complaint reporting mechanism in place.

"Industry has worked for the last two years in collaboration with the federal government and a diverse community of stakeholders to achieve the shared objective of a comprehensive and workable regime to govern advertising in Canada that protects children," said ACA president and CEO Ron Lund.

"Building on the great foundational work of Health Canada, I am pleased to announce on behalf of four leading industry associations a commitment to comply to this new Code to assist them in delivering on one of their key priorities."

Food and beverage advertising has been linked to childhood obesity, with the World Health Organization saying ads of this nature influence everything from food preferences to purchase requests and consumption patterns. A “significant amount” of this marketing is for products containing high amounts of fat, sugars or salt, consumption of which can led to children becoming overweight, obese or contracting noncommunicable diseases.

The Code arrives at a time when younger Canadians are exposed to a steady diet of ads for unhealthy foods. A 2019 study benchmarking children’s exposure to TV advertising of unhealthy foods and beverages in 22 countries, found Canada had the highest rate of food and beverage advertising during children’s viewing times—with approximately 11 ads per hour, per channel. The study found the majority of the ads promoted breakfast cereals, candy, as well as cakes, cookies and pastries.

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