ASAI adopts voluntary junk food rules amid calls for tougher crackdown

Irish Heart Foundation urges statutory ban on digital marketing of HFSS foods

The Advertising Standards Authority for Ireland (ASAI) will this month incorporate rules for the marketing of high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) foods into its code of practice, it told an Oireachtas committee on Wednesday.

The voluntary rules were originally launched by the Government in February 2018, but the Department of Health failed to set up the monitoring body or publish guidance notes for advertisers.

"Because there is no progress, we have decided that we are going to be bringing those rules in relation to marketing communication into the ASAI code and that process should be completed this month," said Orla Twomey, chief executive of the industry self-regulatory body.

“We do recognise that there is an issue and concerns around the advertising of HFSS foods to children and particularly online.”


But the Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media, which is conducting pre-legislative scrutiny of the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill, heard from two other witnesses who called for a tougher approach by the Government.

The only existing statutory rules on the marketing of HFSS foods to children are set by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI) and apply only to broadcast media.

Dr Norah Campbell, associate professor of marketing at Trinity Business School, questioned why similar restrictions did not apply to digital marketing, which is "more immersive, interactive and targeted" than its broadcast equivalent.

She said the absence of information on the sums advertisers spend targeting children online was one reason why “self-regulation is never going to work”.

‘Alarming’ evolution

Irish Heart Foundation policy manager Kathryn Walsh called on legislators to tackle the "digital obesogenic environment" by banning the marketing of "junk food". The definition of "online harms" in the Bill should be expanded to include digital marketing deemed harmful, she said.

“For big consumer brands, this advertising is not just about banner adverts, search terms or simple video ads – it’s subtler, more integrated into content, significantly harder to define and monitor and it’s innovating and evolving at an alarming pace,” Ms Walsh said.

Also addressing the committee, Epilepsy Ireland called on the Bill to protect people with photosensitive epilepsy when they go online.

“We have seen in other countries how a particularly disgusting form of online trolling of people with photosensitive epilepsy has become an issue,” said advocacy and communications manager Paddy McGeoghegan.

This trolling involves the deliberate and malicious targeting of people with photosensitive epilepsy with gif images or videos designed to trigger a seizure.

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery

Laura Slattery is an Irish Times journalist writing about media, advertising and other business topics