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Movie madness

Published in The Food Magazine 28th September 2009
The lights dim, the crunchings and munchings start, and the big screen lights up – hey presto you are at the movies. But before the main feature starts – you will first be treated to the adverts. And all too often, that means junk food – and booze.

A Food Magazine survey of cinema adverts played along with films viewable by children and young people (certifications U, PG, 12A, and 15) shows that promotions for sugary products and alcohol are most common. Just three of the 14 films watched were entirely clear of such advertising. Viewers of Ice Age 3 at the Odeon in Oxford were treated to 5 ads for less healthy foods – Ben&Jerry Phish Food frozen yogurt, Haribo Star Mix, Oreo biscuits, Coco Pops, and Cadbury Clusters. In two of the films we viewed, even 12A film goers were treated to adverts for alcohol products such as Peroni Nastro Azzurro and Stella Artois beer, Absolut Vodka, and Jack Daniels whisky.

Kids’ cinema ads – sugar and booze

  Food and drink products Films and rating  
  Magnum Temptations PG Films: Coraline 3D  
  Ben and Jerry’s Phish Food Frozen Yogurt (included visuals for other frozen yoghurt & ice cream flavours including Cherry Garcia, and Chocolate Fudge Brownie) U Films: Ice Age 3
12A Films: Year One; Transformers; My Sister’s Keeper; Julie and Julia; 500 Days of Summer; The Time Traveler’s Wife
15 Films: District 9

  Haribo Star Mix U Films: Ice Age 3  
  Cadbury Clusters U Films: Ice Age 3
12A Films: Year One; Transformers; My Sister’s Keeper

  Oreo biscuits U Films: Ice Age 3
PG Films: Night at the Museum 2

  Coco Pops U Films: Ice Age 3
PG Films: Night at the Museum 2

  Bertolli Spread 12A Films: Transformers; Julie and Julia

  J20 PG Films: Coraline 3D  
  Alcohol products    
  Jack Daniels 12A Films: The Time Traveler’s Wife
15 Films: District 9

  Stella Artois 12A Films: My Sister’s Keeper  
  Absolut Vodka 12A Films: My Sister’s Keeper  
  Peroni Nastro Azzurro 12A Films: My Sister’s Keeper  
  Butlins, as sponsor of Odeon Kids Saturday morning cinema, ran a long advert, including a scene of ice cream sundae eating, with the words: Did you know there were 40,000 litres of ice cream eaten each week at Butlins. PG films: Bedtime Stories  
  U=Universal which means suitable for all ages; PG = Parental Guidance, but unaccompanied children of any age may watch; 12A = 12 and above can see on their own, younger children only if accompanied by an adult; 15 = only suitable for 15 and over  

All of the films surveyed were shown before 9pm, between June and September, at Odeon cinemas in Oxford and London. Using the nutrient profiling model designed by the Food Standards Agency, all of the food and soft drink products in the table would be judged as less healthy and would be therefore be subject to advertising restrictions during TV programmes of particular interest to young people up to the age of 16.

Particularly inappropriate were the adverts for Stella Artois, Peroni Nastro Azzurro and Absolut Vodka before My Sister’s Keeper (12A) shown at 5:15pm. According to Ofcom regulations for television, drinks that contain more than 1.2% alcohol by volume must not be transmitted in the advertisement breaks immediately before or after programmes aimed at young people or during weekdays between 4:00pm and 5:45pm.

The youth interest of TV programmes is judged using a complex formula which judges the child share of the audience; if it is large enough proportionally, in comparison to the number of adult viewers, ads can be banned. Cinema advertising is not subject to the same regulations – and therefore to the same calculations about whether ads are appropriate for the viewing audience. Cinema is governed by a weaker, voluntary code set out by the Committee on Advertising Practice that says that marketing communications should not, “disparage good dietary practice.”

Restricting advertising

The Food Magazine has long campaigned for a 9pm watershed on advertising less healthy food and drink, including alcohol, on television. Current Ofcom regulations represent progress, but many ads for less healthy foods are passed for broadcast, and viewed by millions of young people.  This happens when the child share of the audience, in comparison to the adult share, is not high enough. However, the system is a positive step, unlike the relatively unregulated world of cinema advertising.

A simple system for cinema would be to link advertising restrictions to film rating. It would be straightforward to apply the rating system to ads so that any film deemed suitable for children (U, PG, 12A, 15) would not be allowed to carry alcohol or unhealthy food ads (according to the nutrient profiling criteria used by Ofcom).

The film ratings are there to guide parents, but currently they cannot relax during the ad breaks.

Selling advertising space to cinemas

Cinema adverts are eye catching – they are on a big screen, and tend to be longer than TV advertisements. People are not likely to see them often, so they need to be memorable. Ad space is sold by companies such as Digital Cinema Media which has around 65% of the market due to their work with clients such as Odeon. The company sells a range of packages, for example, the Family Focus. For 928,368 companies get their ads placed during a certain number of films aimed at families, and can request specific times of year to have the ads placed. The companies doing the advertising do not generally choose time of day, or specific films – DCM does these negotiations and planning for them. For the fee DCM gives companies estimates of the number of people who will see the ads.

Food and the movies

It is difficult to even make it into the actual screen to see the ads for high fat, saturated fat, salt or sugar foods without scooping up some yourself. A visit to an Odeon cinema as part of our survey showed a huge wall of such foods dominating the central lobby. There are sweets to be scooped by the bag, chillers with soft drinks, bagged sweet and salty popcorn, loose versions, bagged sweets and chocolate bars. No fruit is in sight.

FilmFeast is the big food promotion – a bag selling for 2.95 – that will give you popcorn sweet or salty, a drink (you can choose water), and either Magic Stars, Smarties – or raisins – but, on the day we visited the raisins were not on offer.

Big poster promotions advertise the Drink Pledge – with Pepsi Max – if staff do not offer you a drink when you order food, you get one free.
And the Odeon Premiere Club is a reward scheme that allows you to accumulate points from purchases – which you can use to buy loose popcorn, and dispensed soft drinks.

Popular cinema

A trip to the cinema can be an expensive treat – tickets are not cheap, and the food prices high. But, according to the UK Film Council’s Statistical Yearbook (2009) cinema going is one of most popular forms of entertainment in the UK. Despite the credit crunch onset there were increases in both box office takings and the number of admissions, with box office receipts topping 850 million. Around 60% of the population goes at least once a year, and 18% go once a month.