The UK government is planning a junk food TV – and now potentially online – advertising ban, blaming such ads for the ticking “time bomb” of obesity. Whether this move will improve public health remains hotly contested, but among the advertising trade bodies there is consensus. They hate it.
As part of prime minister Boris Johnson’s campaign against obesity, the government plans to ban high fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) ads on TV before 9pm. Policymakers are also now in consultation over a blanket ban on advertising sweets and fast food online.
The moves have alarmed an ad industry which relies on such brands for a significant portion of its already under pressure income. Cancer Research UK analysis found that almost half of all food adverts shown on ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky One were for products high in fat, sugar and salt, rising to almost 60% between 6pm and 9pm when they are deemed most likely to be viewed by children. The ban could cost British broadcasters as much as £200m in revenue.
The announcement was first touted in March 2019 as a plan to tackle the childhood obesity “epidemic”, and it has shot back up the political agenda since obesity has been found to raise the risk of Covid-19 fatality.
But the government's own research last year found that ban would only reduce each UK child’s calorific intake by 1.7 calories per day – that's half a Smartie or M&M. Sanchit Jain, a technology and media analyst at Enders Analysis, wrote in The Drum last week that it would be an ”irrelevant symbolic gesture”
Now advertising's trade bodies have also come out fighting against the plans en masse. Here we take a look at their unanimous response.
Advertising Association (AA)
Sue Eustace, director of public affairs at the AA, is “bitterly disappointed” by the government’s decision. “The measures against advertising are misguided, unfounded and will be totally ineffective in the fight against obesity.”
Meanwhile, the online ban is “blunt and totally disproportionate" and would harm food and drink businesses large and small, she said.
“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.”
Eustace argued that a well-funded TV ecosystem will be better placed to combat obesity with campaigns like ‘Eat Them To Defeat Them’ – a campaign created to get children tackling their disliking for vegetables.
According to the Advertising Association, under 16s see less than 0.5 seconds of HFSS ads per day per child.
Paul Bainsfair, director general of the IPA, said he was “deeply disappointed” by the proposals which “disregard the evidence” that the ban would have almost no effect.
“They will punish the very businesses that have been helping the country get through the Covid-19 crisis, including food manufacturers, retailers and commercial broadcasters," Bainsfair said.
"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 proposals come at the "worst possible time for the advertising sector," he added.
IAB UK chief executive Jonathan Mew said the "untargeted intervention disregards the prevailing causal evidence relating to obesity".
He contended the "draconian and unexpected measure" would put HFSS ads on the same par as cigarette advertising – minus the evidence the ban would benefit public health. Meanwhile the digital ban "rides roughshod over digital advertising’s unique capabilities to target and exclude specific audiences".
Additionally, he condemned the government for not consulting the creative industries before making the announcement.
There's been debate among the IAB membership ranks, however. Simon Harris of ad tech firm Mighty Hive and a member of the IAB Tech Lab argued that ads do drive HFSS purchase intent (why run them at great expense otherwise?)
"Even if we were to just start with advertising, would this be a bad thing?"
Phil Smith, director general of the Incorporated Society of British Advertisers (Isba), was also “deeply disappointed”.
He said: “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.
“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.”
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which enforces the rules, sets a “global standard” and is fit for purpose, he argued.
A final stat from Smith: "Advertising exposure to HFSS adverts has reduced by 70% in the past decade, as obesity rates have steadily risen.”
Brinsley Dresden, partner at law firm Lewis Silkin, said the move is "not evidence-based policy, but a knee jerk reaction by the prime minister to his personal experiences".
Dresden pointed out that is the government shirking responsibility. "It allows the government to present itself as if it is taking decisive action to combat obesity.
"In fact, it just more of the same and it is cheap for the government to implement, as it requires no public spending, unlike providing school playing fields, after school activities for children, domestic science lessons, or any number of other policies that would be a more useful addition to the existing advertising restrictions.”
The ban would have no “meaningful impact” on obesity rates and serves only as a “policy fig leaf” for the government.
The other side
Outside of the ad lobby, there's been praise for the initiative.
Cancer Research UK said the ban is "vital" in helping families exhibit better control of their diets. Meanwhile, Caroline Cerny, head of the Obesity Health Alliance, said: “We are delighted the government has recognised the role that the relentless marketing and promotion of unhealthy food plays in driving ill-health.”
Perhaps the threat of a ban enough will force sugar, fat and salt reductions in top food brands. After the 2016 Sugar Tax, we did see a drop in sugar in many snacks and drinks.