Food and Health | Legal | Retail Practices

Advertising: children must be better protected

By : Maryse Guénette
Photo Credit: Victoria Borodinova (pixabay)

Although Quebec law has prohibited advertising aimed at children since 1980, it still exists in the province. Here is a portrait of the situation and possible solutions.

In Quebec, advertising aimed at children under the age of thirteen is not permitted. This is clearly stated in sections 248 and 249 of the Consumer Protection Act (CPA). However, one might often feel that this prohibition does not exist. This is because advertising directed at children is permitted in windows, in displays, on containers, on packages, and also in children’s magazines and in ads for children’s shows. These exceptions are set out in the regulations under the Act. In order to have a clear understanding of the situation, the Coalition québécoise sur la problématique du poids (The Weight Coalition) conducted an investigation. The organization was concerned about the impact of advertising on the eating habits of children. Its observations are published in a study entitled Portrait québécois de la publicité alimentaire aux enfants (Portrait of food advertising to children in Quebec, available in French only). “The most aggressive advertising is found in displays and on packaging,” said Corinne Voyer, director of the organization.


On the ground

For The Weight Coalition, the first step was to determine whether the advertisements were indeed intended for children. To this end, it visited various businesses, taking into account the three criteria set out in the law: the nature and purpose of the advertised good (would the product be interesting to a child?), the manner in which the advertising message was presented (was it designed to attract a child’s attention?), and, finally, the time or place where the advertisement was broadcast (was the audience composed in whole or in part of children?). “We used these three criteria because they have been shown to be effective in providing a clear picture,” said Voyer.

In stores that sell food, attention was paid to packaging, products and displays that might attract young children. In six months, 469 food packages targeting children were identified. “Most of the time, they’re quite easy to recognize,” said Corinne Voyer. “They have attractive characters on them, or the food looks like a toy, for example. But there are also gray areas.”

Voyer was particularly struck by packaging changes for certain holidays (Valentine’s Day, Halloween, Christmas, etc.). Seventy-three examples of this were identified. “Every opportunity is a good one to change how the product is presented,” said Voyer. In her opinion, this is a food for thought.

When a change in legislation calls for a change in packaging, the industry says that this is expensive and it needs time. However, our study shows that they are changing their packaging on a regular basis!”

Corinne Voyer, Director of The Weight Coalition

In restaurants, the researchers turned their attention to the fun placemats and toys given to children. “Giving a child a placemat to draw on is not a problem,” said Voyer. “But when that placemat is a promotional tool, we believe the Quebec law is applicable.” The same is true when promotional toys are given to children. “In this case, it’s a kind of cross-promotion,” she says. “Because the toy is also an incentive to come back to the restaurant.”

In the case of family venues and events (amusement parks, zoos, family fun days, etc.), researchers noted junk food ads on signs and screens, as well as sponsored areas frequented by children. In the report, the organization discusses seven complaints it had previously filed with the Office de la protection du consommateur (Consumer Protection Bureau) that resulted in convictions. In the places that were the subject of these complaints, things seemed to have improved. This leads Voyer to be cautiously optimistic.

My worry is, if we let our guard down too much, some of the ads could come back. We have to keep monitoring and filing complaints. Even if the fines aren’t very high for the companies, a conviction like this has an impact on their image. And no company wants to be seen as a bad company.”

Corinne Voyer

In all the locations they visited, the researchers also observed the displays. “At certain key moments, such as the beginning of the school year or the holiday season, we see cardboard displays appear that represent a school bus or a large Santa Claus,” said Corinne Voyer. “For the time being, these displays are not subject to the Quebec law, even though they are aimed directly at children.”


Damaging to all children

Voyer is well aware that not everyone shares her opinion, as colouring books and toys given to children by restaurant owners are appreciated by many parents. She believes it is important to explain to the public the harmful effect of advertising to children, especially when it involves food products.

For example, the report mentions that advertising in this area has an effect on children’s food preferences and their choice of one brand over another. It also states that even very brief exposure to advertising (ten to thirty seconds) can influence the preferences of children aged two to six. And it gets worse.

Studies have shown that when food is presented to them in a fun package, children may even believe it is healthier.”

Corinne Voyer

Of course, this perception is far from accurate. “The foods that kids are drawn to are cereals and snacks that, while presented as healthy foods, contain way too much sugar, fat or salt,” said Voyer.

It is not just children who are vulnerable, it is teenagers too. “We also need to look at the situation of thirteen to sixteen year olds,” said Corinne Voyer. “Studies show that up to the age of sixteen, young people are very vulnerable to advertising.”


Possible solutions

How can the situation be improved? Should the Quebec law be amended? According to The Weight Coalition, one solution would be to fill in the gaps in the provincial law by using the federal Bill S-228, which was being discussed at the time the report was being written. “This bill aimed to regulate foods that can be harmful to health,” said Voyer. “Because the food products that are most often promoted to children are high in fat, salt and sugar, the federal government could have complemented the Quebec law with its bill.” Voyer spoke in the past tense because, since the last federal election, this bill is no longer being discussed.

Voyer is not alone in wanting to see change. According to an IPSOS poll conducted for the study, 85% of Quebecers believe that children are exposed to too much junk food advertising and 86% of Quebecers agree that the federal government should regulate advertising targeted at children under thirteen in stores. Let’s hope this is possible.

The study

The study, entitled Portrait québécois de la publicité alimentaire aux enfants (The Weight Coalition, 2019), presents a qualitative portrait of food advertising targeting children in Quebec. It was carried out while the federal Bill S-228 – An Act to amend the Food and Drugs Act (prohibiting food and beverage marketing directed at children) – was being discussed. The authors conducted a literature search and data collection. Data collection was conducted at stores that sell food (major grocery stores, large convenience store chains, department stores and pharmacies), twenty fast food and family restaurant chains, and a dozen family venues and events. The data collected was analyzed according to the terms of the Quebec Consumer Protection Act, which prohibits advertising to children under the age of thirteen, and its regulations.