Open your eyes to our junk food blind spot
Jan Gooding challenges the veracity of the argument opposing the HFSS ad ban and questions how well it stands up against the science of genetics
I remember a time when I experienced public criticism of a campaign I was hugely invested in. It felt personal. It was going to cause me problems. It was a distraction. It didn’t feel fair. It was unexpected and the timing was dreadful. I just wanted it to go away.
A colleague quietly took me aside and said, "When I get harsh criticism I say to myself, ‘perhaps they have a point?’ It compels me to pause and take a breath. It helps me make sure I learn from everything that happens."
It's good advice. I would like to ask those fiercely resisting any further constraints on the promotion of junk food to consider it.
Last month I was pleased to attend the Advertising Association, ISBA and IPA joint conference, #RESET2021. It was heartening to hear Oliver Dowden (Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) explicitly acknowledge our industry’s important role in rebuilding our economy back to full strength. He described advertising as a ‘vital cornerstone of our creative army’.
We are behind the curve
He also sounded highly supportive of further restrictions on the promotion of foods that are high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS). Covid has been a stark reminder of the importance of physical health, and one of the most urgent tasks of the Government is to reduce obesity to get the nation fit for the future.
Listening to Kate Nichols (CEO of UKHospitality, the trade body representing the hospitality sector) speak shortly afterwards, the extent of disconnect between Dowden's speech and the response of that industry was palpable.
Her rebuttal argument was essentially that the root cause of obesity is lack of education about food and nutrition in schools, and that it is this lack of education that is preventing people from making "informed choices" rather than the people who cook and serve up the food.
Is advertising really an innocent bystander?
This reasoning sounds sensible and speaks to our marketing sensibilities. After all, advertising is simply helping consumers to choose; it certainly doesn’t force anyone to behave in a certain way. By implication, advertising is also more of a bystander in the battle against obesity and should be left alone to carry on as usual.
Except I am discovering that this argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The nation’s eating habits do not simply boil down to a question of making educated choices and pursuing a balanced diet.
The appetite for food that is high in fat and sugars is not like other behaviour that can be easily controlled. And we need to really get our heads around this, or we will find ourselves looking increasingly silly and out of touch.
The battle of statistics
Our sector is hooked on a dubious sounding statistic (taken from Government research) that a 9 p.m. TV watershed ban would only result in 1.7 calories being cut from a child’s daily diet (apparently equivalent to half a Smartie). So, the proposed ban, using the Government’s own data, will fail to have the desired impact because the effect of banning advertising would be so negligible as to make it a pointless act.
The first problem with this data point is that it’s an average. It doesn’t take into account that different children watch vastly different amounts of TV. It is also based on an estimate that watching one minute of ads leads to children eating an extra 13.6 calories, which the Department for Health and Social Care says is likely to be a considerable underestimate, with the effect on children or obesity much higher in reality.
And looking at pre-watershed viewing, real world data has shown that children watching just one hour of the popular TV show Britain’s Got Talent would see four and half minutes’ worth of junk food ads, leading them to eat over 60 additional calories. So that’s nearly half a tube of Smarties from just one TV show.
Plus, a recent analysis of advertising data by Cancer Research UK showed that nearly 60% of all food ads shown during the prime family viewing time of 6-9pm on ITV1, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky1 were for HFSS products.
Do those lobbying for advertising restrictions have a point?
I think the advertising industry needs to stand back and ask itself whether it is guilty of having a blind spot on this subject.
I get it. These proposals came as an unexpected shock, in the midst of a major global health and economic crisis. They gave little time for proper consultation during a period when whole swathes of the relevant workforce needed to draw up a proper response were on furlough.
There is also bound to be a natural feeling of frustration. Why pick on advertising when the issues are complex, require a systemic set of measures, and the impact of marketing seems at first glance to be relatively marginal?
But here is what came as news to me, making me worry again about our broadly defensive stance. I caught an interview with the well-known geneticist Dr Giles Yeo from Cambridge University on BBC Radio 4’s Life Scientific.
He set out the premise that many of us think we are in control of what we eat, and that this, coupled with what we do, dictates our shape and size. That it is simply physics. If you eat too much, and move too little, you put on weight. Do the opposite and you lose it. I think we are all familiar with this as our shared understanding. This theory relies on the fact that our genes have very little impact on our weight.
But what if we are wrong?
What if our genes have a powerful influence over how we put on weight and why so many struggle to lose it? The inconvenient truth is that for many people, it is not a choice. Being obese is a natural, highly evolved response to our current world. Some people’s genetic appetite is driving them to prepare for a famine that is never going to arrive.
This makes a lot of sense to me. Having too much food is a historically recent phenomenon. Our modern diets are also packed with sugars and fats which are convenient, cheap and delicious.
Some people find it very difficult to say 'no'. Their genes are programmed to give them a bigger appetite and override any sensible monitoring of calorie intake. Dr Yeo calculates that between 40-70% of body weight is influenced by your genes.
Our body weight is also a function of different feeding decisions over many years. If the genetic hand of cards you have been dealt means you are 5% less likely to say ‘no’, that means hundreds of thousands of extra calories being consumed over a period of time.
People are fighting their own biology
Until we understand and take on board this biological driver of underlying appetite we will not be able to correct the obesity crisis in a systemic and meaningful way.
Armed with this insight, I think it is hard to argue that the onus is on the individual and whether they have willpower. We have to accept that constant bombardment of unhealthy food advertising, and there being so many unhealthy options available, does make it harder to make a healthy choice. If you are unlucky enough to have the ‘obesity genes’ but no access to the glut of junk, you won’t get obese.
We worry about the lack of trust in advertising. Here is an opportunity for us to show leadership by accepting that the starting point is not as easy as simply letting people make their own decisions. We have a responsibility to help remove temptation.
I’d love to see us being bold enough to flip the rhetoric. Acknowledging the undoubted part advertising plays. And ourselves offering to change our own diet by giving up some of that junk food advertising.
Jan Gooding is one of the UK's best-known brand marketers, having worked with the likes of Aviva, BT, British Gas, Diageo, and Unilever. She is an executive coach, the chair of PAMCo, Given (London), the president of the Market Research Society, and the former chair of Stonewall. She writes for Mediatel News each month.