Channel Seven has been censured by the broadcasting watchdog for airing a clandestine promotion for fast-food chain McDonald's during children's TV programming.
The campaign, which purported to be a network promotion and aired 72 times during children's TV programs late last year, did a lot of promoting for McDonald's and not much for the TV network.
The fast-food chain's golden arches and its well-known characters Hamburglar and Grimace were prominent, but Seven was not.
The promotion was in fact an ad, paid for by McDonald's, and its broadcast was today found to be in breach of regulations governing children's TV.
Running for 15 seconds, it was shown repeatedly late last year on Seven's stations in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth during breaks in children's TV programs.
Only two seconds of the station promotion actually showed anything to do with Seven, its logo. The rest of it was an ad for McDonald's, and aired during a children's program called Spit It Out and a pre-school program called Toybox.
The broadcasting regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority, today found the ad was not "clearly distinguishable" as an ad to a child watching it. Rather, it was likely that children would think it as part of the continuing TV entertainment, which is a breach of children's television standards.
The regulator also bans characters owned by companies from promoting commercial products during breaks in or immediately after children's TV shows.
Seven defended the complaint while admitting McDonald's had paid for the promotion, arguing the ad was clearly different from the TV programs and that it did not show any product offered for sale.
But ACMA said the mere presence of Hamburgler and Grimace was enough to promote the McDonald's brand and its products, given its "wide brand recognition".
"Ultimately, this increases sales of McDonald's products and services," it found.
Authority chairman Chris Chapman said in a statement this morning it was "serious about the protection of children during children's programming, particularly given their vulnerability to forms of advertising that are not well signposted or have the potential to be unduly influential".
Its "remedial direction" for breaching the code was to require Seven to introduce a process for reviewing all promotions to be aired during children's TV shows and for more training for its workers.
Seven spokesman Simon Francis said the network accepted the ruling.
"We accept ACMA's finding and are implementing steps as discussed with the regulator to improve our processes," he said.
McDonald's Australia said it was "extremely disappointed" that the promotion ran during children's programming and it didn't authorise it.
It denied it was "covert" advertising and said it was committed to "responsible advertising where children are concerned".
Tim Dick is the Herald's Media Editor