Online ad ban sparks fierce debate

Online adverts for foods high in fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) are set to be banned as part of the UK government’s efforts to tackle obesity.

The Department of Health and Social Care published a consultation this week on proposals to ban adverts across social and other online media with research showing children are exposed to over 15 billion adverts for HFSS products online every year.

Campaigners welcomed the proposed ban. Fran Bernhardt, Children’s Food Campaign coordinator said current regulations were inadequate to protect children and said the new proposals would mark “a world leading policy to improve children’s health”.

But industry representatives argued they would restrict the ability of businesses to communicate with their customers. UKHospitality chief executive Kate Nicholls tweeted that the proposals were a matter of “huge concern” at a time when the food sector is “struggling for survival”. She also questioned how meaningful a six-week consultation would be at a time when businesses are planning for Brexit and have key staff on furlough.

The government cited evidence showing that exposure to HFSS advertising can increase the amount of food children eat immediately after being exposed to an advert and also shape longer-term food preferences from a young age.

The proposed tightening of restrictions reflects a shift in the volume of media content children consume from TV to online – a shift that is expected to continue in the long term.

Children aged 5 to 15 year-olds now spend 20 minutes more online each day than watching TV and there has been a 450% increase in spend on online food and drink advertising from 2010 to 2017.

Marketing activity on company websites and social media channels is in-scope of the proposals along with online display ads, in-game and in-app advertisements.

Factual claims such as the name of the products and contact details of the advertiser are set to be allowed but only for users actively seeking them.

Platforms whose principal function is the buying or selling of products, including food and drink, are set to be exempt. This is likely to include aggregator platforms such as Just Eat and Deliveroo.

Andrew Crook, vice chair of the British Takeaway Campaign, said the government risks “clobbering” thousands of independent takeaways and restaurants whose main communication channel with their customers is social media. “Removing their ability to advertise on Instagram or Facebook robs them of a crucial way to reach customers, when nobody knows what the future holds and takeaways continue to have a vital role in keeping the nation fed,” he said.

The measure was originally announced as part of the government’s obesity strategy published in July.

The government plans to implement any restrictions to HFSS online advertising at the same time as it introduces new restrictions on TV advertising before the 9pm watershed. It aims to do both by the end of 2022.

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