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Stephen Woodford 

A clear vision counters any suggested blind-spot

A clear vision counters any suggested blind-spot

The Advertising Association's CEO, Stephen Woodford responds to Jan Gooding's assertion that the industry's argument against the proposed HFSS ad ban doesn’t stand up to scrutiny

Last week, an article from Jan Gooding asked the question of whether the industry ‘needs to open [its] eyes to the junk food blind spot’ and whether advertising should do more to play a role in facing the challenges of obesity today.

Firstly, I am glad Jan enjoyed our joint RESET event with the IPA and ISBA. I too was pleased to hear Oliver Dowden highlight our industry’s important role in getting our economy back to full strength. Advertising is, as Jan and the Secretary of State acknowledge, a ‘vital cornerstone of our creative army’.

As is well known, the Government is planning to introduce a 9pm watershed on HFSS advertising, along with a total ban on HFSS advertising online.

Both these measures are planned to come into force by the end of 2022 and our industry has, by and large been united in its view that these measures will be ineffective in the fight against obesity. Jan’s is an industry voice with a different view and dissent is a right we all have.

But dissenting from an opinion doesn’t mean that the facts don’t remain the same.

While we might take exception with the rushed way that the Government has consulted on its online ban (a six-week consultation closing on 22 December, in the run-up to Brexit and during a pandemic is not the way to consult on a measure of this magnitude), what neither the Government, industry, nor commentators can quibble with are the facts.

And the facts are, according to the Government’s own evidence, that the online ad ban will reduce an average child’s calorie intake by 2.84 calories per day – equivalent to about two thirds of a Smartie or walking for 25 seconds.

However, our own research suggests that even this is an over-estimate, due to factors as simple as arithmetic errors on the part of the Government in its calculations.

The more likely figure is 0.13kcal per day – the equivalent of half the calories in a glass of skimmed milk, per child, per year.

As we in industry already know, rules on HFSS ads in the UK are already among the strictest in the world and prevent these ads being targeted at young people under the age of 16 across all media. HFSS ads are also not allowed on websites of particular appeal to children.

Jan discusses whether some people have a particular natural urge to consume HFSS food and drink and whether to counter this, advertising of these products should be banned.

But isn't it the wrong way of looking at this? It’s effectively shooting the messenger.

Surely if someone is programmed to want to consume these products then their need for extra calories would override any presence or absence of HFSS advertising in their environment.

If they really want it, then they will seek it, whether there is advertising or not.

A ban will not stop that and certainly not a ban affecting all people whether they have these urges or not.

An example of this is Canada, where all advertising to children in Quebec was banned in 1980, but not in the other provinces. Despite this, obesity rates have remained similar to those in the rest of the country. In fact, the prevalence of being overweight and obesity grew by 140% during the first 15 years of the advertising ban, faster than elsewhere in Canada.

So, if some people naturally want these foods and banning advertising will not solve this issue, where do we end-up?

What will be next in the crosshairs of the anti-advertising lobby? The UK diet was arguably at its healthiest during the war, when rationing and restrictions on the food we eat took the notion of choice out of people’s hands.

Do we end up at a point where we start controlling ever more aspects of people’s food consumption and environment? This is only a hypothesis, but it’s a very slippery slope and the regulatory creep we could be witnessing should concern us all.

The proposals already on the table cover a wide variety of food and drink categories including soft and milk-based drinks, snacks, confectionary, yoghurts, ready meals, cereals, cakes and biscuits.

All of these products, when consumed in moderation, can play a role in a balanced diet.

The proposals also cover channels such as TV prior to 9pm - social media posts, emails, online display and paid-for ads could be included.

The Government is also planning interventions in promotions and other areas, all the while ignoring the fact that often people’s weight and obesity is less determined by nature (as Jan suggests), but more by nurture.

According to the National Child Measurement Programme of 2017, obesity among those from a deprived background is 6.9% higher in reception than those from a higher socio-economic background.

This gap rises to 14.9% by Year 6. Similarly, an NHS England survey from 2015 showed that 28% of 5-7 year olds met the daily physical activity recommendation; however, this dropped to 12% among 13-15 year olds.

These are not statistics that can be solved by a ban on advertising, but by intervention at early years and by targeting those older individuals and communities – often more deprived – that are more likely to consume a poor diet.

Advertising can play a role in changing behaviours and promoting positive choices and our experience in this regard is invaluable. Advertising also drives innovation and reformulation of food and drink products.

Conversely, advertising bans counter this by reducing routes to market and means of reaching consumers.

Broadcasters have long supported successful initiatives such as The Daily Mile, which encourages children to walk, jog, or run a mile each day in school, and broadcasters, agencies and retailers have backed the Eat Them To Defeat Them campaign to encourage children to eat more vegetables.

If the Government is really serious about halving childhood obesity then it needs to think about these measures like the Daily Mile or the Couch to 5k programme, which have the potential to increase calorific expenditure by around 100 calories per day - over 500 times the benefits that are expected to be achieved from extending advertising restrictions.

Instead of government and other voices viewing industry as part of the problem of childhood obesity, we believe we should be seen as part of the solution and we should work together to bring about positive change by encouraging healthy lifestyles.

The question of obesity is far greater and far more complex than the simple pinpointing of advertising might suggest.

For our part, the industry remains committed to playing a full and enthusiastic role in encouraging healthy lifestyles, while also contributing to the economic growth and success we need to see.

We would urge industry and government to join us in our fight. As I said at the beginning, we all wish to end up at the same point – reducing levels of obesity – however different the means we get there.

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