Beano hits back: Children’s comic accused of unethical advertising, but company says it's being framed
13 Feb 2023 --- The British Medical Journal (BMJ) investigation has stated that the UK-based comic book Beano promotes junk-food brands involving foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS). The report has received reactions from experts as inappropriate, mainly because the comic book’s audience is children. However, Beano is striking back against the report and tells us that the BMJ investigation is an opinion piece, not based on facts but instead framing it based on keywords to strengthen its arguments.
Quizzes in the magazine that received attention are “The Ultimate McDonalds Quiz” and another one questioning knowledge on food logos from large junk food companies such as Burger King, Subway, Domino and Pizza Express.
NutritionInsight speaks with Rory Weller, communication manager at Beano, Sonia Pombo, campaign manager at Action on Salt and Katharine Jenner, director of the Obesity Health Alliance about the investigation’s findings.
Beano states that the article is an opinion piece that “does not give a representative or balanced picture of the content on the Beano website, choosing instead to cite selective examples out of context to suit the authors’ line of argument,” says Weller.
“We have considerable issues with the BMJ piece. There are factual inaccuracies in the article that we told them about before they went to press, but they chose to include anyway,” he underscores.
Quizzes about junk foods
The report points out that 125 quizzes include chocolate, 143 feature cake and ten other games surrounding food, eight of which include fried chicken, sweets, doughnuts, chocolate and cake.
“It’s an incredibly irresponsible way of promoting unhealthy food. We should be taking unhealthy food out of the spotlight. Unhealthy food currently has a starring role in children’s minds, and things like this glamorize it and make it more appealing. We should be making healthy food more appealing and affordable,” says Jenner.
The report also details that Beano does not get any financial reward from the companies for its “advertising.”
Are “advergames” harmful?
According to the BMJ report, Beano says that it “runs age-appropriate, compliant advertising from brands we selectively choose to work with, [which is] always clearly marked [and that this] would never include HFSS products or brands.”
The type of advertisement is self-regulated under the UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct & Promotional Marketing and is called “advergames,” which states that companies selling HFSS foods cannot be marketed on websites directed to children.
“They are just giving free advertising to products which are harmful to the health of the children who are their users. Suppose it is not the commercial coin that is driving this extensive product placement. In that case, it is blindness and naivety of the Beano corporation that is allowing this content to pass its low ethical standards,” says Boyd Swinburn, professor of population nutrition and global health at the University of Auckland.
Swinburn also says that Beano is “naive” in giving “free advertising” to HFSS brands and products.
Weller responds by explaining that “around 5% of the content on Beano.com features food or drink. Children may visit beano.com, having searched for jokes about Skittles, but will also find pictures of broccoli, apples, pineapples and many other fruits and vegetables on other pages. Beer and wine facts – found in less than 1% of the quizzes on beano.com – are consistent with those within the KS1 and KS2 National Curriculum history programs.”
Still advertisement, even if it’s for free?
The BMJ details one ad from Beano, “the Coca-Cola Christmas truck,” including a one-minute video of the festivities from the soda company while referring to it as “iconic.”
According to the BMJ, Beano responded to the investigators: “This is a historic piece of editorial content from 2017 and was not paid for by Coca-Cola. The American drinks company confirms it was an editorial decision by Beano to showcase the fizzy drink’s advertising campaign – without payment.”
Even though the company is not getting paid for the advertisement, health campaigners have expressed disappointment as the child-directed company shares the message that unhealthy products are “cool.”
Beyond the law, the report also stresses the company’s ethical duty toward children’s health. Beano also refers to itself as “100% safe for children.”
“It might seem like harmless fun, but the evidence is clear that any exposure to HFSS foods through media contributes to increased calorie intake in children. Beano, as one of the most popular children’s comics in the country, therefore has a moral obligation to put children’s health first and limit advertising of these unhealthy foods,” says Pombo.
“Just a little bit of fun”
Henry Dimbleby, the lead author of the National Food Strategy, who has previously called for a salt and sugar tax on processed food, says that “People at Beano might be thinking: ‘Well, it’s just a little bit of fun, that’s what the kids like.’ But I think it is all-pervasive in society. This stuff invades every element of their lives.”
“There is a real problem in society with diet-related disease. The statistics that frightens me most are that in 2035 we’re going to be spending more on treating Type 2 diabetes alone than we spend on all cancers today,” he told the BMJ.
According to recent data, the report details that 22% of reception-aged school children are obese or overweight, and 37% among year six children. Dimbley says a “brilliant thing about Beano is that it’s rebellious, but at some point, a limit needs to be drawn.”
“Beano’s ability to engage, inform and encourage kids to eat more vegetables was endorsed when VegPower and ITV chose it as a media partner for the launch of the behavior change campaign ‘Eat Them to Defeat Them’ in 2019,” says Weller.
He continues to explain that “bafflingly and indicative in our view of the BMJ authors’ selective focus, they chose to cite one of the quizzes in that campaign as evidence of encouraging a negative influence on kids’ attitudes to healthy eating, when the intent of the content in the context of that campaign was the opposite.”
“Corporations which are clever enough to capture and hold children’s attention need to have very high ethical standards to ensure that they are not exploiting those same children by promoting unhealthy products to them,” Swinburn concludes.
By Beatrice Wihlander
This feature is provided by FoodIngredientsFirst’s sister website, NutritionInsight.
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