After years of sex and violence on TV and the recent wall-to-wall coverage of the Iraq war, the tube just doesn’t seem to get as much of a rise out of folk as it once did. There is, however, one area that viewers are still particularly sensitive about – their kids. This has been reinforced recently by one MP, who has started a movement to ban all food and drink advertising during pre-school programming. Why? Because she believes that the ads shown during these times are encouraging pre-school-aged children to eat unhealthily.
Debra Shipley, Labour MP for Stourbridge in the Midlands, is arguing that these ad breaks are dominated by unhealthy snack foods – and that this is helping to establish unhealthy eating patterns at very early ages.
She says: “I was very concerned about the amount of food and drink advertising there was in the programming schedules aimed at very young children, pre-school children. I raised the issue in the House of Commons last year asking ‘who thinks we should move to ban this type of advertising to pre-school children?’ and 130 of my parliamentary colleagues signed it immediately.”
Shipley then went in front of both ITV and the ITC with her concerns, both of whom refused to act on them. Since then she has tabled a Children’s TV Advertising Bill, backed by her MP supporters as well as the British Heart Foundation and the Food Commission.
“What kids are seeing is that happy children are enjoying high fat, high sugar, high salt foods and this is all they’re seeing. All the time,” says Shipley. “I think it’s unacceptable. All the child experts you talk to will tell you that the pre-school age is crucial in the formation of a healthy diet.
“All I’m pushing for is an hour a day where parents know there won’t be any advertising on their programming.”
At the opposite end of the argument from Shipley and her supporters is Ian Twinn, director of public affairs for ISBA, the organisation touted as the “Voice of British Advertisers”.
“Our view is that she’s coming at this from the wrong direction,” says Twinn. “Obviously, children are special and they need protection. Advertisers and companies that put out adverts shouldn’t be able to put out anything they like. It shouldn’t be a free-for-all. That’s why we have such strict rules. Debra Shipley says that the rules aren’t strict enough, but banning advertising altogether is not the answer. You have to have rules that protect the children and protect the advertisers’ right to put their messages out there, and I think that we do that.”
Mediaedge:cia Manchester handles the media buying account for children’s food manufacturer Haribo. Julian Cooper, head of TV, says: “I think advertisers in this country handle everything responsibly. The things you can actually do and say are very restricted. My view is that there are no problems with the advertising. I think kids, even young kids, are savvy and advertisers are very responsible so I think to ban it is completely unnecessary. I think the industry self-regulates very well, so there’s no need to introduce these sorts of draconian measures. All the advertisers promote healthy eating anyway.”
Tony Handley, director of assets at Leeds-based Brahm, is more sympathetic to Shipley’s cause, however. He says: “I can understand wanting to ban some ‘food’, but I can’t understand banning all food. I can see where she’s coming from though and I do have some sympathy. I know we’re meant to be living in a democracy but I do think that children are a special case and need protection.”
So will brands advertising at these times notice a difference in their sales?
Handley responds: “Well, given that I believe advertising works, yes! But it’ll go below-the-line or it’ll go through sales promotion so they’ll get to them one way or another.”
Shipley’s gripe with pre-school food and drink advertising stems from the increasing problem of child obesity in this country. Advertisers argue that parents have a clear role in defining their child’s diet, and that cutting advertising revenue could actually have an adverse effect on children’s programming.
Since commercial TV broadcasters rely on ad revenue to develop programming, a problem with advertising during children’s programming could be solved by the simple solution of cancelling the programming itself, rather than risk losing advertising space.
Twinn says: “The thing is that in our country, when we have only one state-sponsored TV channel and the rest are commercial, those commercial stations are paid for by advertising. If the revenue goes then the programming goes, and I don’t think Debra acknowledges this. I think that Debra’s Bill would lead to a greyer, more bland type of TV.”