Unilever, the world’s biggest advertiser, has vowed to stop advertising to children below the age of 12 over concerns of “childhood obesity, impact of social media and the vast number of products to choose from”. The company is expected to align its communication to the new guidelines by December 31, 2020.
In the past, multinational companies such as Mondelez, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Ferrero and Unilever, which are members of the International Food and Beverage Alliance (IFBA), have voluntarily adopted responsible advertising guidelines for children. This pledge does not impose any restrictions on marketing “better-for-you” products; however, some members do not market any products to children under the age of 12, irrespective of the nutrition content of the product. In another recent development, YouTube has decided to stop targeting ads on content meant for children.
The promises made by IFBA members and Unilever not only address targeting children through television advertising, but also digital, point-of-sale communication, licensed characters and movie tie-ups that appeal to children under 12. Unilever has also decreased the audience representation of children under 12 from 35% to 25% for its measured media channels, thereby increasing the number of avenues where the company cannot advertise anymore.
Manish Bhatt, founder and director, Scarecrow M&C Saatchi, says in the absence of “any enforceable laws or code of ethics on advertising to children”, agencies receive the dos and don’ts from the brands themselves.
India’s primary advertising watchdog, Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI), has broad guidelines on advertising to children. ASCI notes that advertisements should not undermine the role of parental care and guidance in ensuring proper food choices. Additionally, one of the clauses requires that advertisements addressed to children shall not contain anything, whether in illustration or otherwise, which might result in their physical, mental or moral harm or which exploits their vulnerability, shares Shweta Purandare, secretary general, ASCI.
Parle Products, a manufacturer of hard-boiled candy, biscuits and snacks, has not pledged to follow the guidelines laid down by IFBA or any other industry body. “While we have not taken a stance yet, we are extremely aware of our product offerings for children. Despite a variety of guidelines and regulations on producing and advertising foods with high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS), children do consume such products. Therefore, as a responsible company, we try to be realistic and honest in our advertising communication,” says B Krishna Rao, senior category head, marketing, Parle Products.
Responsible advertising goes hand-in-hand with responsibly made products. This is why Indian and multinational food and beverage brands pledged to reduce the quantity of sugar and salt in their products as part of the ‘Eat Right Movement’ initiated by the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India.
Unilever’s pledge includes the introduction of the ‘Responsibly Made For Kids’ promise. Its Kwality Wall’s kids ice-cream will contain 110 calories, a maximum of 12 gm of sugar and three gm of saturated fat per portion.
Experts say that even though brands may have stopped targeting children and selling products containing HFSS on school premises, they have doubled down on their effort to sell these products outside schools, thereby defeating the purpose.
Many multinational food and beverage companies have stopped featuring children under the age of 12 in their marketing communication. For instance, the current campaign for Lay’s chips feature brand endorsers Alia Bhatt and Ranbir Kapoor. The ads for Cadbury 5 Star have been based on a pair of goofy adult brothers since 2005. Hide & Seek is now endorsed by Hrithik Roshan.
It is likely that a brand that ropes in such popular names will appeal to children, even if the ad does not directly speak to them. Unilever’s new pledge is expected to address this concern. The company says it will not use “influencers who are under the age of 12 themselves, and influencers who appeal to kids under the age of 12”.
“Children learn about products through word of mouth,” points out MG Parameswaran, brand strategist and founder, Brand-Building.com. Therefore, he says, product awareness is easy to come by for legacy brands despite the moratorium on communication. That’s why brands who are big in their categories, can skip advertising to children younger than 12. “Younger brands or new brands that are beginning to create awareness for their products cannot afford to take such a stand,” says Dheeraj Sinha, chief strategy officer, Leo Burnett.
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