Food and drink marketers are digesting the contents of the government's white paper on public health. They are now aware that some form of limitation on advertising their products to children is a real possibility from 2007.

Matthew Howe, McDonald's UK senior vice-president, told last Thursday's annual conference of the Advertising Association's Food Advertising Unit that "in spite of our combined efforts, we seem to be losing the argument".

Conscious of the sensitivity over marketing to children, advertisers have already been booking fewer advertisements among children's TV programmes. There was a 22 per cent reduction year on year in numbers of advertisements booked into children's programmes for food, drink and chain restaurants in September, according to Nielsen Media Research.

Coca-Cola is the highest-profile example of this strategy. It announced in November 2003 that it would be no longer be advertising during the traditional times that children watch TV, during the day and after school.

Many marketers have simply chosen to maintain a very low profile on the issue. Some manufacturers are reformulating products with lower salt and sugar levels, conscious that advertising a product that a pressure group could deem unhealthy is a commercial risk.

The furore that surrounded Cadbury in 2003 when it tried to launch a campaign that combined a healthy living message with a voucher-collection scheme has also scared a lot of marketers away from considering any active contribution to the debate. The confectionery and soft drink maker was upset by criticism of the promotion, which encouraged children to save chocolate wrappers in exchange for school sports equipment.

But some, like McDonald's and Asda, the supermarket chain, have been looking at how they can direct healthy eating messages at children - one of the government's suggestions.

McDonald's introduced Ronald McDonald magazine for UK children late last year, having introduced a comic in 19 European countries the year before. Using cartoons, puzzles and word games, it focuses on encouraging children to eat more fruit and vegetables and to play sports. Produced by specialist children's magazine publisher Egmont Magazines, it was designed "as a fun way of improving children's literacy, numeracy and creativity, while talking about balanced diets", says McDonald's.

In August 2003, the company introduced children to the "Yum Chums" in a series of two-minute advertisements produced by the advertising agency Leo Burnett. A set of characters formed from fruit and vegetables dance around and sing about the importance of eating fruit and vegetables. They are introduced by Ronald McDonald. Mr Howe says: "Children connect with Ronald - he attracts attention." The advertisement was shown every day at the same time throughout the month on children's TV channel Nick Junior, placed around educational show Blue's Clues. A new ad was introduced each week, moving the action on like a programme series.

The idea is not a new one for McDonald's. In the US, its old Willie Munchright character has been given a new lease on life to tell children about balanced diets in similarly styled ads. He has also been supplied for free to the New Zealand government to promote its own healthy eating messages to children.

Mr Howe says he is aware that consumers are cynical about McDonald's motives for introducing these types of health education initiatives, but he believes the company's commitment to the strategy will eventually win people over. "We are realistic - we will only be taken at face value when we have shown that we are willing to stay the course."

The company is still refining the execution of the strategy. Yum Chums are currently being reworked to bring in more humour to appeal to older children, while the Ronald McDonald magazine's frequency and format is being reviewed.

Asda has introduced more child-oriented copy in its customer magazine. The title is read by many children, but the strategy has been to focus on mothers as "gatekeepers", says Gerri Richards, group publishing director of Asda's customer publishing agency, Publicis Blueprint. "Most food manufacturers are wary of targeting children directly - it's far better to talk to children via the mums."

Asda recently ran a competition in the magazine asking children to think up a new character for the "Garden Gan" - bags of chopped fruit and vegetables in small portions - which elicited the highest number of competition entries the magazine had ever had.

Experts in marketing to children say that targeting parents using media that they can absorb with their children is the safest territory for food and drink marketers at the moment.

"In the long term I can see marketers moving more of their budgets towards marketing to families rather than just children," says Dave Lawrence, planning director at UK-based Logistix Kids. "Parents are more relaxed if they are involved in the message their children are receiving - it is the campaigns using media that target children directly, like texting, the internet and competitions on their mobile phones, that bother parents the most."

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018. All rights reserved.

Comments have not been enabled for this article.