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'Misguided, unfounded, ineffective': Trade bodies react to junk food ad ban

27 Jul 2020  |  Mediatel News Staff 
'Misguided, unfounded, ineffective': Trade bodies react to junk food ad ban

In its latest bid to tackle obesity, the UK government has confirmed plans to ban all advertising of "unhealthy" foods before the 9pm watershed across both TV and online.

The government is also planning a consultation on whether to end online ads for foods high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) altogether.

In addition, the new obesity strategy includes a ban on "buy one, get one free" deals on HFSS foods, while new restrictions on where such foods can be promoted in store and new rules for displaying calories on menus are to be introduced.

The initiative comes as evidence that obesity causes an increased risk from Covid-19 grows. It is to launch alongside a new Public Health England campaign - "Better Health" - which aims to help improve people's health and fitness as the nation comes out of lockdown.

However, the news has been met with widespread dismay across the media and advertising industry. Critics note the damaging consequences the ban will have on media owners and advertisers as they attempt to recover from the business impact of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the evidence that suggests ad bans have little to no effect on calorie consumption.

Here is what the sector's leading trade bodies had to say:

Sue Eustace, director of public affairs, Advertising Association

We are bitterly disappointed by the announcement today by the Government that they are to press ahead with measures against advertising that are misguided, unfounded and will be totally ineffective in the fight against obesity. The Government’s very own research has shown that a 9pm watershed ban on HFSS advertising will reduce a child’s calorie intake by a miniscule 1.7 calories per day – the equivalent of half a Smartie.

The unwarranted and unprecedented ban on online HFSS advertising is a blunt and totally disproportionate measure. It will prevent food and drink businesses large and small up and down the country from being able to advertise and market their products. It will also impact online publishers, with consequences for journalism. Given the already strict rules in place, enforced by the ASA, these new measures would be wrong even in the most favourable economic circumstances, but to impose them during the current climate is an affront to hard-working business owners and is not what would be expected of a Government seeking to create a business-friendly environment.

These proposed bans on HFSS advertising will not solve the structural inequalities linked to deprivation that cause higher rates of obesity among people, just as attention-grabbing new regulations will not undo decades of under-investment in targeted and community-based health initiatives. Advertising has a unique ability to be part of the solution to obesity by promoting healthy lifestyles, as the recent ‘Eat Them To Defeat Them’ TV campaign to encourage children to eat vegetables shows. It seems the Government has ignored its own research showing how ineffective these proposals would be.

Phil Smith, director general, ISBA

We are deeply disappointed by the Prime Minister’s announcement today. It rides roughshod over the evidence and is a slap in the face for food and drink manufacturers, the advertising sector and small business. Obesity is undoubtedly a serious public health issue. Covid-19 sets in stark relief the impact of obesity on other conditions and the NHS. But the public deserve better. They deserve a Government response which is rooted in the evidence and addresses the complex, multi-factorial causes of obesity. Yet this, the third Obesity Strategy in recent years, has been driven by the health lobby and represents a missed opportunity.

In 2019, the Government’s own impact assessment, as acknowledged by Professor Tam Fry of the National Obesity Forum, showed ‘scant evidence’* for a TV watershed, while driving a coach and horses through the funding model for commercial broadcasting in the UK and risking jobs in every constituency of the country - for a gain of 1.7 calories* per child per day, the equivalent of half a smartie. The current rules on advertising are comprehensive, effective, evidence-based and proportionate and apply wherever you may see ads, whether on TV, in the street or on public transport. They apply online and in social media. Enforcement of these regulations is overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority and sets a global standard. Advertising exposure to HFSS adverts have reduced by 70% in the past decade, as obesity rates have steadily risen.

This announcement cuts the legs out from the ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ scheme, will cost families more at the checkout, denies small businesses the targeted local online advertising on which they now rely and risks jobs at a time when government has elsewhere shown them support. We will be taking the time alongside our members to study the detail of the proposed consultations, but fundamentally reject the premise on which this announcement has been made.

Paul Bainsfair, director general, IPA

We have always supported the aim of tackling the problem of obesity in the UK but we have always made the case that the introduction of further restrictions on advertising will not help achieve that aim.

We are deeply disappointed by these proposals. They disregard the evidence – including the Government’s own – on the impact of restrictions on HFSS advertising and will punish the very businesses that have been helping the country get through the Covid-19 crisis, including food manufacturers, retailers and commercial broadcasters. They also fail to acknowledge the UK’s highly respected self-regulatory system which already imposes tough rules on the advertising of HFSS products across all media, including TV and online.

The Government’s own evidence shows that a pre-9pm TV ad ban would reduce children’s calorie consumption by only 1.7 calories a day, ineffective by any standards. It also acknowledges that the direct link between food marketing and obesity is difficult to measure and quantify due to obesity being a multi-factorial condition.

The proposals come at the worst possible time for the advertising sector and for industry. The Government should be supporting businesses which have been reeling from the Covid-19 crisis, not banning them from advertising their products.

The Government is encouraging the country to Eat Out to Help Out but at the same time intending to introduce a ban on advertising HFSS products. Advertising fuels the economy and should be used as a key enabler in getting the country’s economy back on its feet. Ad bans will do the opposite.

Jon Mew, CEO, IAB UK

Reducing obesity within the UK is an important priority, but to be effective the Government’s strategy needs to be based on sound evidence – which is sorely lacking in this case. The Government’s own 2017 impact assessment showed that an online ‘watershed’ would reduce children’s calorie intake by a negligible 0.3 calories per day and that the evidence of the impact of advertising on adults’ calorie consumption was, at best, ‘inconclusive’.

A move as drastic as a complete online ban of advertising HFSS products - to anyone, at any time - rides roughshod over the self-regulatory advertising codes and must be substantiated by robust evidence. Our view is that the case has not been made for a ban on HFSS ads online - whether pre-9pm, or entirely - and that it will have untold negative consequences without making any meaningful contribution to the Government’s aim of reducing obesity.

The consequences of such draconian and unwarranted action will likely be felt across the entire digital ad ecosystem, affecting quality news publishers that are already navigating well-documented challenges and arguably stymying the tentative economic recovery of small businesses that rely on affordable and targeted digital advertising to support their trade.

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05 Aug 2020 

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