The UK Ad Association has restated its hostility to a blanket ban on digital fast food ads, warning that any kneejerk reaction would be an ”ineffective and doomed-to-fail measure” in tackling childhood obesity.
In damning the ban as an exercise in futility, the membership body (which represents some of Britain’s biggest brands) was responding to a report by Bite Back 2030 (a healthy eating campaign backed by Jamie Oliver) that is being presented to MPs today, on the eve of the publication of a consultation into an online junk food ads.
HFSS ad ban ‘myopic’
Bite Back 2030 calculate that children are being swamped by around 500 online junk food ads every second and have demanded government action to combat the issue.
Healthy eating campaigners fret that celebrity endorsements of unhealthy brands such as Coke and McDonald’s by the likes of Katy Perry and Lewis Capaldi are unduly swaying impressionable young minds on social media towards diets that are high in fat, sugar or salt (HFSS).
By way of example, the pressure group cites a series of online concerts held in October by McDonald’s that included big names such as Stormzy, Olly Murs, Craig David and Jess Glynne.
To prevent further harm from being done, Bite Back 2030 wants to see a blanket ban imposed on all digital content depicting junk food that could be seen by children.
Refusing to allow such arguments to go unchallenged, the Ad Association has put forward its counter stance, declaring that any such move would be ineffective at best and should not be allowed to distract from the more pressing need to address social inequality.
Backing up these claims with government figures, the trade body reports that a total online ban would reduce a child’s intake by a mere 2.84 calories a day once the displacement effect of junk food ads migrating to other forms of media is accounted for. Similarly, a pre-watershed TV ban would depress consumption by just 1.7 calories a day.
AA chief executive Stephen Woodford said: “Both are negligible amounts – the equivalent to eating about two-thirds of a Smartie or walking for 25 seconds. Moreover, a recent academic study showed that over the last 30 years, UK Governments of both parties have proposed 689 policies to tackle obesity in England. Despite this, rates of obesity have not decreased, they have grown.”
Reinforcing the message that further rules and regulations are not the answer, Woodford added: ”Existing rules governing the advertising of food and drink high in fat, salt and sugar online and on TV are already among the strictest in the world and mean that children are exposed to very little of this type of advertising.”
What does the AA want?
The timing of the AA’s intervention aims to have maximum impact on a government that is already deep in consultations over an online junk food ad ban.
Proffering an alternative route map, Woodford suggests that ministers should adopt tried and tested solutions, principally by lowering inequalities that see socially excluded communities more likely to suffer from obesity.
This would negate the need for another ”ineffective and doomed-to-fail measure”, but Woodford concedes it ”...takes investment and, with government strapped for funds, it may not seem the most attractive option”.
Ever the optimist, Woodford remains hopeful that hard decisions will be made, concluding: ”Nevertheless, in the long term, it will have far more benefit and positive effect than quick, but myopic, measures that garner headlines at the expense of both sense and sound economic argument.”
Background to a possible ban
The growing argument is set against a background of mounting concern in the advertising community, with ad bodies slamming the ”severe and disproportionate impact” of employing a sledgehammer to crack a nut.
Alarm in the advertising community is built on predictions that the sector could hemorrhage £200m in lost revenue as a direct consequence of a ban – a heavy blow for an industry already reeling from the impact of Covid-19.
The British government has already promised to ban junk food adverts before the 9pm watershed and may yet go further in preventing all online promotion of confectionary, soda and junk food.
At the head of pressure to act has been mounting evidence that obesity has been an exacerbating factor behind many Covid-19 deaths, but this has to be weighed against separate evidence purporting that a child’s calorie intake would fall by just 1.7 calories a day after a ban.
Independent studies conducted by Cancer Research UK calculate that almost half of all food adverts shown across ITV, Channel 4, Channel 5 and Sky One were for products high in fat, sugar or salt – a proportion that rises further to 60% during the primetime 4pm-9pm window.