The UK government has reportedly brainstormed a ban on advertising foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) online and on TV before 9pm in an attempt to tackle the obesity crisis in children worsened by lockdown-forced inactivity. The Drum explores why the regulations are leaving a bad taste in the mouth of marketers.
The affected brands, narrowly branded as junk food by many, are rallying against the announcement. Setting the tone, one senior ad exec speaking anonymously says: “It’s a stupid, dumb, idiotic, pointless waste of effort and I hate this stupid government for sticking its nose in where it shouldn’t be.”
The on-the-record quotes landed were hardly more cordial. Prime minister Boris Johnson’s government has been lumbering towards a big decision on HFSS products since 2020, and this announcement is the fruits of their labor.
From what we know, most HFSS foods will be restricted from advertising before 9pm in the UK on TV, digital and social.
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) inherits the task of ensuring brands stick to the rules. Will it receive the backing to police this regulation?
Some foods are reportedly spared a ban, like olive oil, jam, honey, avocados and Marmite. Until the report is officially released, it’s unclear why the distinction has been made, but it is believed to allow some wholefoods.
Some channels reportedly remain unhindered – digital, audio and OOH among those.
The British Takeaway Campaign celebrates the fact small businesses under 250 staff can continue advertising, as they’ll need all the exemptions they can get after a tough lockdown.
Brand campaigns will be allowed as long as they don’t show in-breach products. As many titles report, Coke Zero, McNuggets and more can advertise unabated.
And it is worth pointing out that the policy forces brands to consider advertising and championing healthier alternatives.
Chorus of condemnation
The big ad bodies have mobilized to attack the policy.
Sue Eustace, public affairs director at the Advertising Association, is “dismayed” by the move. She says food and drink companies “won’t be able to advertise new product innovations and reformulations and larger food-on-the-go, pub and restaurant chains may not be able to tell their customers about their menus”.
She worries too about the cost to British broadcasters, as much as £200m in revenue – a royal yacht-shaped hole in income.
Jon Mew, chief executive of digital advertising body IAB UK, is “staggered that, in the face of so much evidence showing that it will have next to no impact on childhood obesity rates, the government continues to pursue headline-grabbing, hollow actions with today’s confirmation of an HFSS online advertising ban”.
Said evidence pushed by critics is the government’s own research that the ban would only reduce each UK child’s calorific intake by 1.7 calories per day. That adds to about a Big Mac and a side of fries every year. Or for confectionary fans, half a Smartie a day. Big picture thinkers may argue that spread across around 12.7 million under-16s in the UK, that’s a lot of fat, sugar and salt taken off the table.
Mew says the IAB’s “alternative to the ban would further restrict children’s already limited exposure to HFSS ads online, without inflicting unnecessary damage on the advertising, media and hospitality industries”.
Isba’s director-general, Phil Smith, admits advertisers agree there is an “obesity problem and that action must be taken”. Innovation, rather than regulation, is the answer, he claims.
“There is no evidence that what ministers are proposing will have any meaningful impact on children’s health. The possibilities of technology have been ignored, and industry’s attempts to deliver the desired outcome in a way that would also prevent economic harm to business have been waved away.”
He warns the move threatens an economic recovery. “It seems that government has plumped for headlines over meaningful reform.”
The IPA’s legal and public affairs director Richard Lindsay gnashed at the government too. “The bans will grab headlines and suggest that government is doing ‘something’, but what it is doing is misguided and will serve only to damage businesses, not protect children’s health ... the devil will be in the detail, but loud headlines do not mean good policy.”
But per The Grocer and YouGov, 57% of British adults would support a proposed ban on HFSS internet ads. There is an appetite for the ban – hence why the government is cooking it up.
What it means
Last year, as ad bodies claimed HFSS advertising didn’t significantly drive increased consumption, IPA data was commonly cited to say that 87% of ad campaigns don’t grow the category, but rather shift purchasing from one brand to another.
Do ads merely help us pick what HFSS foods we’ve already decided we want? Or is it more complicated than that?
Going one step further, children generally aren’t decision-makers in most households – but do these ads stay with us and inform life-long health habits?
Jenny Biggam, founder of media agency The7Stars, which buys such ad space for brands, says the decision is “completely unfounded” and that even with existing restrictions in place against such ads “obesity rates have continued to rise in the UK”.
“To take a decision that impacts such a wide number of businesses, with no direct evidence that the approach will work, is ridiculous.”
The ban will hurt TV and online and shows a “complete failure to understand and engage in the technical capabilities of digital advertising”.
And what of positive health campaigns like This Girl Can and Eat Them to Defeat Them. TV advertising, it appears, can also play a positive role.
Classifying what foods come under HFSS can be a headache too. “While staples such as bread and pizza will be problematic, nuts and cream get a pass.”
Sanchit Jain, TMT management consultant at Baringa Partners, who previously wrote on the TV ad ban for The Drum, believes it was a foregone conclusion since December 2020, judging by his behind-the-scenes conversations with stakeholders.
He says the policy does not provide evidence to strongly link advertising and obesity, and fails to account for “some of the fantastic initiatives broadcasters have introduced to help encourage healthy lifestyles and education, or the broader issues of the national approach to obesity prevention”.
And then there’s the implementation. “Local regulation for the internet is unlikely to be effective. In Italy for instance, an online gambling ad ban was trialed but international advertisers were still able to flood websites with their ads.”
Jain adds: “Focus on the broader and more important contributors to obesity such as exercise, income, education and lifestyle is ignored, with the government outlining no plans to address any of these issues.”
But brands at least will be thankful to learn they can still advertise, just with another scrupulous measure to contend with. Jain boldly predicts: “Broadly, the pot of ad spend is likely to remain similar, with most changes occurring in creative.”
McDonald’s, it appears, will not stop advertising just because it cannot show a huge burger. But then again, when was the last time Leo Burnett relied on a huge burger to sell you the idea of a McDonald’s, anyway?
Additional reporting from Imogen Watson.