Celebrity chefs, the NHS, the London Mayor and even former ‘big food’ marketing executives, have joined calls to prevent advertisers targeting children. Will Theresa May change her tune? By David Burrows.
In 2015 Public Health England published an extensive review of what drives sugar consumption and how to reduce intake. The available research, the experts noted, “shows that all forms of marketing consistently influence food preference, choice and purchasing in children and adults”. They cited a Food Standards Agency report which found: food advertising to children is ubiquitous; the advertised diet is more unhealthy than the recommended one; and food promotion is having an effect, particularly on children’s preferences, purchase behaviour and consumption. The review was dated 2003.
Consider the reach of social media, expansion of fast-food brands and the amount being spent on marketing unhealthy products (£250m-plus every year) and it’s safe to say things have got worse. This is an era in which children spend less time at school than they do in front of a screen and are being bombarded by ads through social media. “We consistently find that children are exposed to countless numbers of hidden digital marketing techniques promoting foods high in fat, sugar and salt,” said the World Health Organization’s regional director for Europe, Zsuzsanna Jakab.
In Scotland, nearly three-quarters of the advertising seen by children is for junk food. Research commissioned by the Obesity Health Alliance has also found that children watching family shows can face up to nine ads for high fat, sugar and salt (HFSS) products in half an hour. Adverts for fast food and takeaways appeared more than twice as often as any other type of food and beverage adverts, OHA discovered.
The statistics are startling but hardly surprising. Junk-food advertising is self-regulated by the Committee of Advertising Practice (CAP), but the rules are full of loopholes, according to campaigners. Last week, for example, MPs on the health and social care committee heard from Dan Parker, a “big food” ad executive turned health campaigner. “We need to stop all forms of marketing of junk foods to our children in whatever form it is,” he said. “This [CAP] code does not include Google or any other search engines. It does not include YouTube. It does not include Facebook or Twitter. It is a shocking sham, the whole piece of regulation.”
A few days ago NHS boss Simon Stevens and London Mayor Sadiq Khan both joined to chorus for action: the former called for a clampdown on junk food brands advertising on social media.com, whilst the latter wants to ban the marketing of unhealthy foods on Transport for London sites. Jamie Oliver, who has also given evidence to the committee, has even launched a new #AdEnough campaign to raise awareness. He told Marketing Week: “All I’m asking is: is it appropriate to advertise food that is high in salt, fat and sugar to children during their favourite shows on primetime TV and to bombard them when they’re online, when obesity is crippling the NHS?”
It’s fair point but will the government listen?
In its 2016 childhood obesity plan, the prime minister, Theresa May, chose to ignore the impact of junk-food marketing on consumption patterns. There was no mention of the supermarket and food chain price promotion tactics that Public Health England wanted rebalanced in favour of healthier products. Campaigners were flabbergasted – and so too were the government’s own health advisers, it seems. “We didn’t get further restrictions on advertising,” said Dr Alison Tedstone, the chief nutritionist of Public Health England, at a conference in Edinburgh in March. “You have to be superhuman to avoid some of the promotions in supermarkets.”
The Scottish government has also been lobbying for more restrictions. Advertising is devolved and the health minister Aileen Campbell has challenged Westminster to rethink its stance. In October, she published her own plan to tackle obesity and right at the top was a commitment to take forward measures to restrict the promotion of HFSS food and drink.
Campbell and her team are also “minded” to restrict price promotions. A 9pm watershed for junk-food advertising is also in the plan. The aim there would be to prevent children seeing junk-food adverts during family shows such as The X Factor, which currently slip through the CAP code’s net given the audience is less than 25% children. As Parker asked the MPs last week, is this really acceptable?
“If you talk about porn or sex or violence, the other things we don’t want our kids to see on telly, we don’t accept 25%. We don’t accept collateral damage or acceptable levels of failure. We just don’t have it on the telly before 9pm because we don’t want our kids to see it.”
Scotland’s obesity plan certainly has its flaws (there is very little on reformulation), but campaigners have generally been supportive of the marketing measures in there. Eight out of 10 respondents to a consultation on the draft agreed with restrictions on non-broadcast advertising of HFSS foods. There was also backing for a ban on broadcast advertising before the 9pm watershed, and strong support in responses for restrictions on price promotions.
According to a review of responses just published, most food and drink industry representatives claimed that restricting price promotions would increase prices, reduce choice for consumers (it’s worth noting that 71% of Scots are concerned about the level of price promotions on unhealthy food, according to Food Standards Scotland research) and increase food waste. They favoured measures on consumer education.
Extended marketing restrictions, meanwhile, could result in job losses and reduced GDP and have “only a modest influence on children’s food preferences”. At a Scotland Policy Conference in Edinburgh in February, Shahriar Coupal, the director of advertising policy and practice at the Advertising Standards Authority, said: “The evidence tell us that there is an impact [from food and drink advertising] on children’s food preferences. But not so great we believe as to warrant the kinds of restriction that we’re hearing about in [Scotland’s proposed] obesity strategy.”
Back in Westminster last week, the Food and Drink Federation urged the government to “resist calls for headline-chasing measures”. Two years ago, May managed to do just that, but she might not be able to hold out much longer.