Many of the comic’s online quizzes are on foods that are heavy in fat, salt, and sugar. Experts describe it as “very irresponsible,” and they urge the corporation to amend its policy.
The website of the UK children’s comic The Beano claims to be “100% safe for children,” but is its junk food content doing more damage than good?
According to The BMJ, Beano’s website, which is marketed as a digital hub for children aged 6 to 12, features products from well-known brands that are detrimental to children, such as fast food, confectionary, soft drinks, and ultra-processed food.
According to Claire Mulrenan and Mark Petticrew at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, as well as freelance journalist Harry Wallop, 47.9 million children have visited beano.com since its launch in 2016, which includes frequent references to the well-known high fat, salt, and sugar (HFSS) brands.
There’s an ‘Ultimate McDonald’s Quiz,’ a ‘How Well Do You Know the Nando’s Menu’ quiz, and a ‘Skittles Jokes’ website, to name a few. There’s also a quiz called ‘Ultimate Food Logo,’ with 10 possible answers: Greggs, Heinz, Pizza Hut, Nando’s, Subway, Domino’s, Quorn, KFC, Pizza Express, and Burger King.
There’s even an alcohol-themed quiz, with the question “How long have humans been creating beer for?” accompanied by a picture of a pint being poured.
There is no evidence that any of these quizzes were paid for by the brands themselves, which may be classified as “advergames” under the self-regulating UK Code of Non-broadcast Advertising and Direct and Promotional Marketing (CAP).
Health campaigners, on the other hand, are dissatisfied with Beano’s willingness to showcase so many junk food brands – and to put these brands right in front of children’s minds, implying that a chocolate, fizzy drink, or burger brand is “cool” – even if it isn’t taking money from the companies themselves.
Health professionals are also extremely worried, with estimates showing 22% of reception-aged kids are overweight or obese, rising to 37% of children by year 6.
“It is an incredibly irresponsible way of promoting unhealthy food,” says Kat Jenner, director of nutrition, research, campaigns, and policy at the Obesity Health Alliance, while Boyd Swinburn, professor of population nutrition and global health at the University of Auckland and an honorary professor at the Global Obesity Centre in Melbourne, believes the company is “naive” in providing “free advertising” to HFSS brands and products.
Beano.com obtains data on children’s consumption preferences through various quizzes and games, which are then anonymized and sold to firms interested in learning more about what children enjoy and dislike.
Beano maintains that its surveys comply with all legal and data protection requirements, and that “any claim that Beano is somehow contributing to greater use of HFSS products among children is untrue, inaccurate, and destructive.”
Nonetheless, campaigners wonder if the firm has an ethical obligation to protect children’s health, write the authors.
According to Henry Dimbleby, the principal author of the National Food Strategy, which advocated for a salt and sugar tax on processed foods: “‘Oh, well, you know, it’s just a little bit of fun, that’s what the kids want,’ Beano employees may be thinking. But I believe it is all-pervasive in society. This crap infiltrates every aspect of their existence.”
Former Minister of Health James Bethell concurs. In reference to the UK government’s plans to postpone a ban on junk food advertisements on TV and online before 9 p.m., he says: “What irritates me about this is how persistent it is in the lives of young people. There is no way out.”
Because Beano claims that it has not taken money from any of the HFSS brands that frequently appear in its quizzes, the stricter (and now postponed) rules about marketing junk food to children would not prevent the company from continuing to feature so many burgers, pizzas, crisps, and fizzy drinks, or from suggesting that these brands were “cool,” the authors write.
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Nor will it stop the comic hosting Fortnite, a game headlined by one of its characters Minnie the Minx who has “been served up a plate of horrible veg and she needs your aid to eat them and defeat them!”.
According to J. Bernadette Moore, associate professor of obesity at the University of Leeds, “The notion that children would not like nutritious food pervades every area of our society. Companies with large youthful audiences, on the other hand, must recognize that they are shaping rather than reflecting child tastes.”
“We take immense care in what we show to youngsters, particularly around health and wellbeing,” Beano commented, adding that its website also contains some positive information about fruit, vegetables, and healthy eating, such as the “Ultimate Vegetarian Quiz.”
Swinburn, on the other hand, believes that Beano must do better, and he has called on the firm to change its strategy and stop promoting things that are hazardous to children, such as alcohol, fast food, confectionary, soft drinks, and ultra-processed food.
“Corporations that are clever enough to attract and hold children’s attention must have extremely high ethical standards to ensure that they are not abusing those same youngsters by advertising dangerous products to them,” he concludes.