Questions remain over junk food marketing rules

Do new rulings on online adverts for sweets and chocolate show self-regulation is working or woefully inadequate?

In July 2017, the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), placed restrictions on the advertising of food and drink high in salt, sugar and fat (HFSS) to children online and via other non-broadcast media. This month, Cadbury, Chewits and Squashies became the first companies to have online adverts banned since the rules were introduced. The brands had reportedly skewed some of their marketing towards children.

The Obesity Health Alliance and Children’s Food Campaign welcomed the rulings, but said the rules remain too weak and impossible to monitor. Companies are “ignoring the spirit of what those rules are there for” and “deliberately targeting kids with apps, games and storybooks”, they said.

It also took six months to reach the decisions, by which time the advertising campaigns had long been concluded. “The companies in question weren’t penalised in any way, and children remained largely unprotected from the harmful effects of junk food marketing,” said CFC coordinator Barbara Crowther.

She also raised concerns that the rules only apply when 25% of the audience is deemed to be children. “The Cadbury ruling, for example, revealed that the company doesn’t actually hold any data to show that visitors to their website are predominately over 18, but they state that ‘it was unlikely that over 25% of its visitors were under the age of 16’,” she explained. The fact CAP agreed with this assessment, despite no evidence to back it up, is “worrying”.

Guy Parker, chief executive at the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), was understandably more upbeat about the rulings. He told Marketing Week that companies need to be “really careful when marketing to under-16s and don’t take easy options – it’s not good enough to rely on people’s self declared ages”, he said. “It’s important that we pick up on anything that crosses the line and these rulings show the food industry exactly where that line is.”

What’s more, the ASA’s informal monitoring suggests the rules are having a “significant impact”. A blog on the Authority’s site this month reads: “It’s early days, but the new restrictions appear to have landed well. We’re not seeing evidence of widespread non-compliance.”

A review of the rules has just been launched to prove the doubters wrong, and ensure the government resist calls for what the Food and Drink Federation deems “headline-chasing measures”. It did so in chapter one of its childhood obesity strategy, published in August 2016. However, chapter two, published just last month, suggested that it’s going to take another look at self-regulation versus regulation.

The government said it will “consider whether [self-regulation] continues to be the right approach for protecting children from the advertising of unhealthy food and drinks, or whether legislation is necessary”. And there was more. “We think more could be done to build on current restrictions to deliver this protection. Our ambition is to see further advertising restrictions applied, which limit children’s exposure to HFSS advertising, incentivise reformulation, and ensure that the healthiest of products are advertised freely across all programming.”

So, are the three rulings this month evidence that the rules are working and the majority of companies are following them? Or do they just add weight to the argument that the CAP guidelines are full of loopholes that food brands are all too happy to exploit? That’s for ministers now to decide.

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