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News Analysis

By The Drum, Administrator

November 29, 2006 | 5 min read

Ofcom’s ban on junk food advertising aimed at children has sparked an outcry from the advertising community. The restrictions are intended to limit children under the age of 16 from being exposed to TV advertising for food and drinks which are high in fat, salt and sugar, but for many, this is yet another restriction on what can and cannot be watched on our televisions, an extension of the nanny culture that the UK has adopted in recent years.

Ofcom studied 11,000 people’s family eating habits and interviewed 2000 kids, parents and teachers. The outcome of the research provided Ofcom with “clear, unambiguous evidence” that TV ads do affect children’s food preferences and dictate, to a certain extent, what they eat.

While the watchdog admits that TV advertising is not by any means the biggest factor dictating what children eat – parents and schools are far more important – it claims that advertising certainly has a large part to play in shaping diets... and, hence, the nation’s children.

“Given that advertising does have an effect and that what kids eat is linked to the current obesity concerns, we felt it was appropriate for there to be some targeted restrictions on TV advertising of food and drink products,” Matt Peacock, communications director of Ofcom, told The Drum.

“Dealing with TV advertising is not a silver bullet. It will not in itself cure childhood obesity. Nobody believes that – least of all us. We are not nutritional science experts, we are not health experts – we are communications regulators and television experts. We are only looking at the area where we have expertise. If we were to pose a more draconian ban it would have a massive negative effect on the [TV] medium in this country, so we’ve come to a midpoint.”

While the Food Standards Agency welcomed the news, the Food Advertising Unit has voiced a mixed response. It accepts that further restrictions were necessary, but feels that Ofcom has failed to consider evidence that advertising has only a “modest effect” on children’s food preferences.

Sue Eustace, director of public affairs for the Food Advertising Unit, said: “Ofcom has moved the goalposts from its original regulatory objective in March by extending volume and scheduling restrictions to programmes of direct appeal to under-16s, thus intruding into adult airtime. We fear there could be a knock-on effect on levels of investment in quality UK-produced programming.”

Another body which is unclear on the consequences of the ban is the ASA, which is still currently in consultation over the legislation. Matt Wilson of the ASA said: “On the back of Ofcom’s announcement, the advertising industry has been quick to come out and say that the legislation is too harsh. Meanwhile, the likes of Sustain and the anti-junk food lobby were disappointed.

“The Committee of Advertising Practice will meet to discuss the ramifications of Ofcom’s consultation, and we await the outcome of those meetings to see how we can push things forward and see how the rules will be affected.”

Other companies have been quick to realise that stategies may need to change in light of the new legislation. “We are obviously looking into the implications,” Jonathan Kemp, commercial director at AG Barr, the makers of

Irn-Bru, told The Drum. “We need to fully understand what the legislation is and which of our brands it affects. At the moment my understanding is that Diet Irn-Bru is not affected at all, but Irn-Bru is, so we’re just trying to understand the consequences.

“Typically our advertising is quite adult in its nature and style, and therefore quite a lot of our adverts are given an adult rating anyway. What we’re doing at the moment is talking to Leith and our media agency to understand the implications. Undoubtedly it will have some effect.

“I don’t think it’s very good news for television. More and more people are looking at a broader marketing mix, unlike the old days when it was very simple - you spent three quarters of your money on TV and the rest went elsewhere. The marketing mix now is much more sophisticated as people reach a more targeted audience.”

However, Andy Niblett, FeatherBrooksbank’s head of TV, doesn’t believe the ban will have much of an impact on the Scottish television marketplace. “Realistically, Ofcom has taken a pretty decent position in the sense that they were always going to do something. Perhaps the only thing that they’ve done that was a little bit unexpected was to introduce the relevant age to under 16s rather than just targeting the under-nine market. One thing that was precious to the major broadcasters was their adult inventory, and that’s been left alone.

“There’s an argument for saying that children’s channels themselves will suffer, and the argument extends to the fact that more children watch Coronation Street than watch any given programme on any of the children’s stations, and, of course, the advertising will still be perfectly legal in those areas.”

The Government will review the current restrictions in a year’s time, deciding whether or not to introduce a full ban before the 9pm watershed. But, with recent ‘revelations’ in the press showing how junk food marketers are now also using the web to ‘trick’ children, television might not be the only area to feel the brunt of the legislatory pressure.

In the meantime, the biggest positive – other than perhaps helping to reduce the waistlines of kids – is the ringing endorsement that television advertising is still very much seen as a major influencer.

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