Following the publication of the Department of Health's White Paper 'Choosing Health' in 2007, the UK's Advertising Codes were significantly tightened in relation to food marketing which included a prohibition on targeting children's TV channels with ads for foods high in fat, salt and/or sugar (HFSS products).  Since then, HFSS food advertisers have been forced to find new ways to promote brands to younger audiences.

The intervening years have seen a dramatic growth in the accessibility of smart phones and tablet computers. With children amongst the heaviest users of such devices, food advertisers have been quick to come up with innovative ways to get their brands back in the minds of young consumers.

One such approach is the use of the 'advergame' which was highlighted in a Channel 4 Dispatches "Tricks of the Junk Food Business' programme aired earlier this month.  Advergames are online games appearing on product websites or within social media applications, which allow users to engage interactively with a brand. The Dispatches programme explored the use of advergames by junk food advertisers and identified a number of brands who use the approach including McDonalds and Coca-Cola.  However, the brands were keen to point out that they had previously pledged not to advertise fattening and sugary products to under 12's and adhered to the 4+ rating given to the games by the App store.

Recent research carried out by the University of Bath suggests that children under the age of 15 are generally not aware such games are advertising or of the strong influence they can have on what they want to eat with many parents being equally as ignorant of the impact seemingly innocent games can have.

The Local Government Association agrees with the report and is now calling for an obligatory uniform labelling system for all children's advergames. It is also insisting on pop-up health warnings accompanying advergames.  However such measures are unlikely to take affect with the government being quick to highlight the existing strict regulatory framework which governs UK food advertising.

Food advertising is regulated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) under the provisions set out in the UK Advertising Codes. The ASA's remit was extended in 2011 to more widely cover internet marketing such that it now covers advertiser's websites and social media content under their control which includes advergames. 

With the protection of children from harm considered its principle concern, the ASA's position is clear; food advertising should not encourage poor nutritional habits or an unhealthy lifestyle in children and advergames specifically should make clear that they are marketing and be prepared responsibly.

In February, the ASA reaffirmed its on-going commitment to ensuring the regulation of food advertising remains effective by announcing that it would be commissioning a review of digital and online marketing of food and drink to children.  It also continues to proactively monitor food ads with a particular focus on online advertising to identify problem areas and will continue to take action against advertisers found to breach the UK Advertising Codes.

Results of the ASA's review can be expected later this year. In the meantime, food marketers are reminded of the scope of the UK Advertising Codes and should err on the side of caution if considering a campaign that targets children.