LONDON — What is the difference between a McDonald’s Happy Meal and a box of Coco Pops?
Beyond the obvious, one can be advertised to children on British television, and the other cannot.
Britain’s Advertising Standards Authority ruled Wednesday that the fast food giant McDonald’s could market its Happy Meal during children’s programs, but ordered Kellogg’s, which makes Coco Pops cereal, to remove commercials it had broadcast alongside a children’s show.
The decisions highlighted the British government’s increased scrutiny of fatty and sugary food and drinks being marketed to young people, part of a broader effort here to promote healthier eating among children.
Obesity affects nearly a third of children from 2-15 in Britain, and regulations prohibit the advertising of products that are high in fat, salt or sugar content during programs “commissioned for, principally directed at or likely to appeal to” children younger than 16.
Kellogg’s ran afoul of those regulations, according to the standards authority’s ruling Wednesday.
At issue was a new product, Coco Pops Granola, which the company introduced last year and had been promoting in a TV commercial featuring the cereal brand’s mascot, Coco the Monkey. The cereal tastes like traditional Coco Pops — whose sugar content was too high for ads aimed at British children at the time — and also contains whole grain oats and reduces the overall level of sugar. (Kellogg’s changed the Coco Pops recipe in July, bringing the cereal into compliance with advertising rules governing sugary foods.)
But the Obesity Health Alliance, an umbrella group of health organizations, filed a complaint with the advertising regulator, arguing that the ad for new version of Coco Pops had the effect of promoting the brand as a whole, including the flagship product and its higher levels of sugar.
Kellogg’s insisted the advertisement was clearly for Coco Pops Granola alone, and not any other products.
The standards authority was unmoved by the company’s argument. It found that “children were likely to very strongly associate the Coco Pops brand and Coco the Monkey primarily with Coco Pops original cereal.”
The authority’s decision on Coco Pops contrasted with its ruling on McDonald’s Happy Meals.
In January, McDonald’s broadcast a commercial on an online streaming service in which an anthromorphized Happy Meal box fought with the Pokemon character Pikachu over a pineapple. The ad also featured a bottle of water and a portion of chicken nuggets, options that can be included in a Happy Meal.
Although not all of the items available in Happy Meals meet the advertising regulator’s healthy food standards, the authority nevertheless found that the ad would generally be understood to promote the Happy Meal in general, and not just the healthiest items, and chose not to take action against McDonald’s.
The regulator has previously urged companies to be responsible in how they use characters popular with children in advertising, especially when marketing foods that are high in fat, salt and sugar.
Some activists were unimpressed by the distinction drawn by the regulator between Happy Meals and Coco Pops.
Ben Reynolds, the deputy chief executive for Sustain, a group that advocates for better food and farming practices, said that the McDonald’s ads could still draw children into the company’s restaurants, where they could order unhealthy items.
“Should we be advertising, associating junk food in any form with kid friendly characters?” he asked.
It remains unclear whether regulations and rulings by agencies like advertising authority make a difference.
A report in May from the Institute of Fiscal Studies, an independent British think tank, pointed to flaws in the advertising rules.
The report argued that children watched family programs that were not specifically targeted at them throughout the day leading up to 9 p.m. The 9 o’clock hour is known in Britain as “the watershed,” and broadcasters must assume children are part of the audience up to that point.
As a result, the report found, half of the advertising for food and beverage products that children saw in 2015 was for products high in fat, salt and sugar.
This “indicates the complexity of trying to design a regulation for something as complicated as advertising and nutrition,” said Kate Smith, a senior research economist at the fiscal studies institute and an author of the report.
Ultimately, Smith argued, regulating advertising might only be a partial solution. “It could be that restricting advertising is one way,” she said, “but there isn’t going to be one policy that will magically solve the issue.”
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