Researchers say online food advertising does not affect children’s diets / Neil Hall Photography

Marketing companies are free to continue using 'advergames' - addictive, heavily branded, free online games - to promote products high in saturated fat, salt and sugar

Children will continue to be bombarded with online adverts for junk food “every day” after a report into the effects of internet marketing on the young failed to recommend any changes to the current rules, health campaigners warned.

A year-long review commissioned by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), which is responsible for setting the rules governing the industry, concluded there was not enough evidence to suggest online food and drink marketing had an effect on children.

The decision leaves advertisers free to target children with controversial “stealth” marketing techniques such as “advergames” – addictive, heavily branded, free online games which often promote products high in saturated fat, salt and sugar.

Advertising junk food products on television during children’s programmes has been banned since 2007. But restrictions governing online advertising remain weak. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) is only able to take action against a retailer if its online game “encourages poor nutritional habits, such as excessive consumption or unhealthy lifestyles”.

The review, carried out by market research agency Family Kids & Youth, said while there was “considerable disquiet among campaigners and some academic researchers” over how junk food was advertised to children online, “the evidence in support of such concerns remains limited”.

It conceded that today’s children may be exposed to more advertising for less healthy products, but said there was no evidence suggesting online advertising, including advergames, affected their eating habits.

In response, CAP said it would launch another review into the issue with the aim of publishing more guidance in the autumn. It said retailers should “review their online marketing” to make sure it was easily identifiable to children. “It’s crucial we keep an active watch on developments online to make sure our regulation continues to play an appropriate part in protecting children,” said Shahriar Coupal,  the director of CAP.

Health campaigners described it as a major disappointment and accused CAP of “lagging ever further behind” technological developments. Mike Hobday, of the British Heart Foundation, said: “While we’re pleased the report acknowledged children struggle to differentiate persuasive advertising from harmless entertainment, we’re disappointed it has not taken stronger action to stop children being exposed to junk food adverts online.

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Advergames are one of the most controversial marketing techniques, as they can make children associate unhealthy products with fun (Getty)

“The recommendations leave the online sphere loosely regulated in comparison with TV and mean advertisers can continue to target children every day with  marketing specifically designed to get them eating unhealthy products.”

Malcolm Clark, of the Children’s Food Campaign, added: “CAP regulators seems to have done little more than stick their fingers in their ears and pretend there’s no problem. If the CAP code isn’t relevant to our 21st-century forms of advertising, most people will question whether it is fit for purpose.”

He also called into  question CAP’s close relationship with the ASA, the self-regulatory body which applies the rules. “It is based in the same offices as CAP, shares some of the same staff, and the public could be forgiven for concluding the ASA might be unwilling to bite the hand that feeds it,” he said.

Kawther Hashem, a nutritionist at Action on Sugar, added: “For too long we have allowed an unregulated food industry to peddle poor-nutrition, high-calorie products targeting the most vulnerable members of our society – our children.”

Advergames are one of the most controversial marketing techniques, as they can make children associate unhealthy products with fun. The Local Government Association last year called for the introduction of pop-up health warnings on the games, which, it said, were increasingly easy to access by children using smartphones and tablets.

A 2012 report, commissioned by the Family and Parenting Institute, suggested that children’s brains process advergames in a different way from traditional adverts, on a “subconscious, emotional” level. But the CAP-commissioned review said it was “unclear” how popular the games were and what impact they had.

A CAP spokesman said “some groups will be disappointed by the findings of the review”, but insisted it had been “thorough” and “well thought out”. The spokesman denied it was too close to the ASA. “I wouldn’t give that much credence. CAP is a sister organisation of the ASA, which regularly reprimands food giants.” Family Kids & Youth declined to comment.

Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, a former GP who is now Chair of the Commons Health Select Committee, said: “It is time to stand up to the food giants who are flooding our children with adverts for unhealthy food and drink, at a time when a quarter of the most disadvantaged are leaving primary school facing a lifetime of health problems as a result of obesity. This was a wasted opportunity to protect children from the deluge of advertising.”

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