Analysis: Call time on outdoor junk food ads for kids

A new report proposes improved regulation to prevent junk food advertising from targeting children outdoors, writes Nick Hughes.

A great British institution it may be, but the telephone box is increasingly a relic of a bygone age.

Or is it?

The reality may come as a surprise to those of us who assumed phone boxes were hurtling towards obsolescence in the digital age. While ubiquitous mobile phone ownership has left little need for people to communicate via public payphones, the number of phone boxes continues to swell. A sample of 12 council areas carried out by the Local Government Association last year showed a combined rise of 927% in applications for telephone kiosks between 2015-17.

The reason, quite simply, is advertising. Phone boxes make for excellent outdoor advertising spaces and because their installation does not require planning permission,companies are exploiting the opportunity to install so-called ‘Trojan’ phone boxes to market their brands.

This was one of a number of loopholes and failures in current advertising rules identified in a joint report by Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming, and Food Active, a healthy weight programme delivered by the Health Equalities Group. It claims current regulations do little to meaningfully restrict children’s exposure to physical junk food advertising, with out-of-home brands especially culpable in the eyes of campaigners.

When the government announced the second chapter of its Childhood Obesity Plan in June 2018, it included several new measures to restrict the marketing and advertising of less healthy food and drink across various platforms. These included a 9pm watershed on junk food advertising on television and similar protection for children viewing adverts online, as well as restrictions on price promotions and placement of unhealthy food and drink.

The report describes these as “bold and promising measures”, although the authors worry they may still be watered down or scrapped altogether following the consultation period.

Of more immediate concern, the authors say, is the failure of the plan to identify outdoor advertising of less healthy food and drink as an issue.

Over the second half of 2018 Sustain and Food Active systematically examined different types of outdoor advertising on media such as billboards, telephone boxes and bus stops in different settings. They found numerous examples of products high in fat, salt and sugar (HFSS) being advertised in locations with a high audience of children. These included McDonald’s advertising a student offer on a telephone box next to a park in Chester; KFC advertising its Southern Bites on a freestanding unit near a children’s festival; and Coca-Cola advertising its sugared and non-sugared drinks on the side of a bus.

Public complaints about such adverts have occasionally been upheld by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), the industry-funded regulator of the advertising business in the UK. An ad for a KFC Mars Krushems milkshake drink placed in a phone box directly outside a primary school fell foul of the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP) code, which states that advertisements for HFSS products should not be placed in areas where children make up more than 25% of the audience. KFC apologised and explained it was human error that

caused its media agency to select the phone kiosk as a site for the advertisement.

Other similar complaints, however, have not been upheld, often because the sites in question were not considered unsuitable to carry HFSS advertisements.

The report claims this is due to a series of loopholes and failures in the compliance procedure. To begin with, it points out the onus is on the public to report any breaches in the CAP code, despite many people not knowing what the rules are. When complaints are submitted it says the procedure is lengthy, with rulings often taking place long after a campaign has ended. When an advertisement is found to have breached the code there are no financial repercussions for the advertiser in question.

Then there is what the report terms the “anomaly”, whereby a junk food advertisement can appear outside a nursery attended by a 4-year-old, but not outside a school attended by a 5-year-old. This is due to an “arbitrary decision” that the definition of children making up over 25% of the audience is interpreted for the outdoor environment as only covering sites that fall within 100 metres of a primary and secondary school, but not other settings.

The report concludes with a series of recommendations. These include for the ASA to extend the definition of an area where children congregate to include nurseries, children’s centres, parks, family attractions and leisure centres, and for local government to have more powers to impose restrictions on advertising, including on public phone boxes.

Some local authorities are already taking matters into their own hands. The mayor of London has introduced a ban on advertising across the entire Transport for London network that directly or indirectly promotes HFSS products.

But with Food Foundation data showing that the top HFSS brands still spend over £143m on advertising their products each year, just like the phone box, junk food ads are unlikely to disappear from our towns and villages any time soon.

Sustain and Food Active’s Taking Down Junk Food Ads report is available here.

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